ROCK SPRINGS – The Art Gallery at Western Wyoming Community College is currently hosting the exhibition “The Singular Image,” featuring two styles of photographic works by Laramie photographer and University of Wyoming Instructor Bailey Russel. The show runs through Thursday, Sept. 24 at the Rock Springs campus.
On display in “The Singular Image” are two styles of photos created with similar techniques: the “Untitled Laramie Alley Project” features images of alleyways in present-day Laramie, while the other collection features images of the artist’s friends and family members as black-and-white images and as negative exposures. Both sets of images were developed directly onto photo paper using large, custom-built cameras and without the use of negative processing.
“The actual piece of paper you’re looking at in the show is what’s inside the camera,” Russel said. “There is no reproduction or anything like that. It’s a unique image that has all the marks of what’s going on inside the camera, and you don’t lose any information. There’s no loss from negative reproduction or anything like that. It’s just that direct image right onto the paper.”
The alleyway photos, Russel said, were taken with a trailer that he converted into a giant plywood camera.
“I made that a couple years ago when I first moved to Wyoming, because what I’d done before moving to Wyoming, in Seattle and New York, involved taking rooms with views and converting the rooms into cameras,” he explained. “I’d cover all the windows in the room with black plastic, put a little lens into one of the windows, and project images into the room onto large sheets of color photo paper. So the resulting images were color negative photographs.
“There’s a certain process I need to do for that, and there are no machines in Wyoming to do that,” added Russel, who is a native of New Jersey. “And there are also no tall buildings with views. So I built this trailer, instead, and started doing black-and-white images with it. The trailer is basically the camera, and I can fit inside the box.”
Russel is able to project images upside down and backwards through the lens mounted at the back of his trailer directly onto a screen inside. He hangs photo paper inside the trailer and opens up the lens for a period of time to take an image.
Russel said he originally envisioned using the trailer-camera for landscape photography, but distances and topography did not lend themselves to that format.
“Everything is really far away and it’s open and flat. There’s not a lot of intimate detail going on there,” he explained. “It didn’t really seem like that was the best usage for this process, which shows you, up close and personal, huge amounts of information. So that’s how I got to the alleyways, trying to figure out what this process lent itself to most readily. So I moved away from the mountains and forests toward something that you wouldn’t look at that that much, and so it allows you to look at it a little more carefully, and something that is designed for trucks and trailers. The trailer takes up the entire alleyway when you go through it, so there is this really nice relationship between the camera and what I am photographing.”
For the portraits, Russel used a similar camera created from a large plywood box and with a slightly smaller lens.
“It’s the same idea, in that you’re projecting an upside down and backwards image onto this paper,” he said. “I then roll up the paper, take it into the darkroom, and process it in the darkroom. The portraits are done on three different types of paper: straight black-and-white negative paper, so you get the negative image; positive paper, so you get the positive image; or a negative paper that I then do this really complicated, weird, and not very functional…process to turn it into a positive. Those are sort of the weirdest of the portraits, the ones that have a lot of what is called solarization on them, strange tones and stuff.”
This is photography the way it was practiced in the early days of the medium. Unlike in today’s selfie generation, no one in those photos was having much fun.
“They’re really slow. I think they’re 20-second to 30-second exposures,” Russel said. “It’s a pretty arduous and painful process to sit for. You have this huge flash that’s like a foot from your face that basically blinds you. And then you have to sit still for 20 seconds or else you get a little bit of blurring in the image. So it’s sort of an explanation for why the people look very unhappy. I’m trying to go back to that early photography time when portraits were painful. Portraits were a process to endure. No one was smiling back in the early 20th century. You can’t keep a smile for 30 seconds.”