Colby Dean Caldwell pushes his black knit-wool cap up a bit. The 36-year-old photographer, a North Carolina transplant, is getting ready for his fourth one-man show at Hemphill Fine Arts, and the chill in his barely heated studio at Millennium Arts Center has begun to bite. “Sometimes I sit on that,” he jokes, pointing to a portable radiator that he shifts from place to place as he moves about the large space.
Marked “Home Room” on its door—in a nod to Millennium’s past as a D.C. public school—the studio is essentially one giant room where Caldwell modifies his photos and constructs the wooden boxes on which he mounts them, without glass or matting. Colored pencils, jars of wax, glue, and other materials abut the studio’s couch; Simon Schama’s Landscape & Memory rests on a stack of books on the coffee table, making implicit the connection between the reproduction of a Corot landscape inside it and one of Caldwell’s new works. A smaller sideroom, which doubles as a storeroom and kitchen, juts off the wall near his desk and the sleek Macintosh G4 computer where Caldwell transforms the digital files that contain his images.
What’s missing from the setup takes a moment to notice: There is no darkroom. Caldwell has stopped printing his images himself.
“This is the first show that I have not used a wet darkroom for,” says Caldwell. “If I need a wet darkroom, I work at the Corcoran [College of Art and Design],” where he is an adjunct professor in the fine art and photography departments.
“I used to do a lot of manipulating the image,” Caldwell says, referring to his first decade on the D.C. art scene. He sometimes printed his old black-and-white staged tableaux and details of paintings through a stocking or filters to create desired effects. Now, he considers himself an “image archaeologist,” working with photographs generated by the process of transferring film to video to computer, rather than forcing layer upon layer of alterations onto photographs during printing. Light leaks, dust, and digitally created abstract patterns are all subjects of fascination in his new exhibition, “Songs,” in which he continues to explore the themes of history, memory, and the land.
For his breakthrough 1999 show at Hemphill, “Groundwork,” Caldwell began creating massive color Iris prints—shots of digitally modified frames from his grandfather’s old hunting films, taken on trips to Montana in the ’60s. Soon after, Caldwell began to push the boundaries of digital-imaging technology and the relationship between photography, computers, and film even further, creating work he has included in “Songs.”
He started using a Super-8 camera to capture his own images—of tracks on a mown field in Scotland, of Hadrian’s Wall, of hazy trees in the distance. And he began a new series exploring a single abstract digital image that popped up accidentally during the transfer of some Super-8 film to the computer. “I call it what happens when analog and digital meet and don’t like each other,” says Caldwell, describing the soft, complex patterns. Each of the pieces in “Songs”—whose size has outstripped the capacity of all but commercial darkrooms—is a marriage of hi-tech and handmade, altered by the artist with up to five layers of wax, which he applies to preserve the shots in lieu of glass.
Caldwell believes he has finally hit his stride in his new exhibition. “It feels like this is my first show,” he says. —Garance Franke-Ruta
“Songs” is on view to Saturday, March 2. There will be an opening reception at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 16, at Hemphill Fine Arts.