There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
On a warm early-April evening, Glenn Friedel prepares to pack up the last of his belongings. Movers carted away most of his things two days before; the only objects remaining in his old Rockville, Md., apartment are a collection of cameras—a wooden pinhole model, a cheap plastic Holga, and a streamlined silver Polaroid—several of his recent black-and-white photographs, and a couple of pieces of furniture. Plus what are perhaps Friedel’s most prized possessions: his photograms.
The majority of these cameraless photographs are stored in Mylar bags and stacked on the living room’s beige carpet. A few mounted in spare black metal frames lean against a wall in two stacks. Friedel is about a third of the way through bubble-wrapping them.
“I wanted to move these myself,” the 32-year-old explains. “I didn’t want them to be accidentally squashed by a dresser when everything was moved….Each photogram is unique, so once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
Flipping through the framed photos, Friedel locates the signature piece from his first solo show, held at Bethesda’s Gallery Neptune this past March. It’s a strikingly simple black-and-fire-red diptych titled Primordial Human. He places the two halves of the photogram on top of each other. Eighty inches tall and 30 inches wide, the piece features a dense background from which emerges a glowing, life-sized silhouette of a woman. Her body’s definition is stronger near her arm and torso; it fuzzes out and sometimes fades completely along the curves of her leg.
It’s a remarkable image, one that represents the culmination of years of artistic experimentation. To hear Friedel tell it, it’s also a representation of someone’s soul—specifically, that of Friedel’s ex-girlfriend, a Cleveland-based kindergarten teacher. Their relationship ended last September. “Even though we broke up, she’s still the model I have in mind when I decide how to make these,” he says. “I’ve been thinking about getting back together with her—not just for her modeling ability.”
In other photograms, differently hued but similarly featureless silhouettes of nude women—and, occasionally, a disrobed Friedel himself—emerge from and dip back into their black backgrounds. Friedel dubbed the series Capio Lumen, Latin for “I seize the light.” But he’s reluctant to explain any more, apparently worried that he might dispel his pieces’ mystique. “Creating beauty is one reason,” he offers. So is his fascination with “the curves of the female form.”
As he disassembles the halves of his diptych, he finally admits that the main purpose of his work is to capture something that is otherwise invisible. “I want to show the inner being, the primordial self that can relate to souls and not worldly stuff,” he says. He gestures to the Capio Lumens spread around his former living room. “These represent the divine beauty within all of us.”
Friedel hasn’t always been such a mystic. In fact, back when he was a drama and English major at Washington University in St. Louis, experimenting with one of photography’s most elemental techniques was the last thing on his mind. “I was a huge athlete, wasn’t into art at all,” he says.
Then, during his sophomore year, Friedel’s life changed. “I had a massive stroke,” he recalls, a result of drinking after taking an excessive number of ephedrine pills. “The ephedrine is a speed thing, increases your heart rate,” he explains. “Your blood cells get smaller, so they can get through the veins quicker. Alcohol dilates the blood cells and makes them bigger. So I had all this high blood pressure, but they couldn’t get smaller to protect themselves. They wound up getting stuck in a vein in my brain.”
As Friedel discovered when one of his doctors gave him cognition tests, the incident had a significant impact on his thought patterns. “They’d [say] things like, ‘List all the words that start with A.’ I’d just had a stroke, so I could only come up with, like, three words for each….I scored in the eighth-percentile range of adult verbal-communication skills. So 92 percent of the world could speak better than me.”
Perhaps because he was only 20, Friedel made a remarkable recovery. The only lasting physical effects of the stroke, he says, are that “sometimes I get pins and needles in my hand and foot and have difficulty explaining myself.” Artistically, the episode had a stronger impact. “I think the stroke is connected to the art stuff,” hypothesizes Friedel. “Maybe almost dying gave me a reason to be more introspective. I’m just guessing. I don’t know….[I] was young. I didn’t think anything could get to me or hurt me.”
After eight months away from school, Friedel enrolled in George Washington University’s communication department—which, among other things, allowed him to study film. Two years after receiving his bachelor’s degree, he enrolled in American University’s film program, where his thesis was a romantic comedy called Underdogs. After premiering the movie at the New York International Independent Film Video and Arts Festival in 1999, the young writer-director made a move designed to capture the attention of Hollywood: He auctioned the film’s distribution rights on eBay. Or at least he tried to. “The film wound up in a bunch of festivals,” Friedel says. “But we never sold the rights.”
Uninterested in struggling to make it big in the movie business, Friedel decided to switch his focus to a more solitary, less harried pursuit. “When learning cinematography,” he says, “they also teach you still photography. There are a lot of similarities—same lenses, same filters.” In one class, a professor introduced him to the photograms of Man Ray and contemporary artist Adam Fuss. The process behind these works—placing objects directly onto pieces of photosensitive paper and then exposing it to light—appealed to Friedel, both artistically and metaphorically.
“I got into this book on near-death experiences,” he explains. “[In it,] people always talked about the light being the nonearthly form of us. In a lot of cultures, light represents the soul or the divine within us.”
Friedel’s own spin on soul-capturing arose by chance. “I was working on a much smaller photogram, and I happened to put my feet on it,” he says, picking up one
bubble-wrapped piece. He opens it to
reveal his footprints, surrounded by swirls of bright pink.
When he received the developed image from his local photo lab, Friedel recalls, “I wasn’t expecting it, but having the human form in the photograms in addition to the abstract, bright colors made perfect sense. It was like a light bulb went off.” To Friedel, incorporating the whole human form into his photograms was the next natural step—and coincidentally meshed with one of his goals: to capture on photographic paper the essence of humanity.
“Glenn and I share that idea that our souls or energy levels can be very inspiring or transcendent,” explains Gallery Neptune owner Elyse Harrison. “His photos are pure energy, auras, a very pure essential description of the human form. His work…involves pure movement and energy throughout the whole body, and I think they’re powerful for that.”
But capturing a full figure in a photogram posed problems. For one thing, finding film labs in the area that could process large pieces of photo paper was difficult, and the cost of materials was prohibitive—particularly given the number of photograms upon which Friedel experimented. So he developed a compromise: He creates his works by taping together two pieces of 40-by-30-inch photographic paper which he separates again in the completed piece. The imperfect representation, Friedel says, has a thematic significance: “As a race, we’re close to being perfect at times, but there’s still something not quite right yet.”
Besides developing the photo paper, Friedel does everything involved with making his art at home. “It begins with me sitting on my couch, drawing sketches of how I’d like the model…to be on the paper, and what color I want the figures to be,” he says. “I use Cibachrome paper. It’s negative paper, so when it’s developed, I get the opposite of the color of light that I shined on it.”
For example, to get the vivid red in Primordial Human, Friedel consulted a color wheel to determine the exact opposite shade of green, then flashed the paper with light of that color. Next, Friedel says, “I put it away until a time when the model stops by. Then we get back in the dark. I lay down the film again, and she lays down on [it]. Then I flash the paper with white light, which turns the picture black in places other than where she covers the paper, where it remains red.”
Even though Friedel has been working with this process for a few years, there are still plenty of unexpected factors that can influence the results. He points to a photogram hanging in his now-former studio, an untitled piece that features a woman’s legs. They look sort of scalloped, like a mermaid’s tail. “This one I originally planned as a diptych,” he says, “but it looks good just by itself….It’s one of those happy accidents.”
Even the unhappy accidents are OK by Friedel. True to the surrealists who inspired him, he has even begun to introduce uncontrollable variables into his new works. “I’ve been moving away from the black backgrounds and working with pieces that involve a lot more exposures,” he says. In one new photogram, the background shades from sky blue to turquoise to navy, with the model appearing as a ghostly white.
At least one new piece has already sold, and Spectrum Gallery Director John Blee plans to include some of Friedel’s latest Capio Lumens in a two-person show at his Georgetown space this fall.
“There’s a lot of joy in the Capios,” says Blee. “They have an exuberance because of their scale and direct use of the body….I think Glenn directly uses the body, as opposed to capturing it on film. It’s more akin to action painting or dance than traditional photography.”
Unlike in his earlier pieces, the figures and backgrounds in Friedel’s most recent works are sometimes difficult to distinguish—a benefit, the artist says, of unstable light sources. After trying Glow Sticks, laser pointers, and even key-ring lights, Friedel reports, “I’ve really gotten into lighters and matches…Their light is more unsteady and harder to control, since it flickers and waves.”
The uncontrollable nature of the light appeals to Friedel. “That’s where the chance comes in,” he says, smiling slightly. “I welcome that.” CP