Interview by Daniel Seth Kraus
All images © Caleb Charland
Growing up in rural Maine, Charland developed a sense of curiosity for natural phenomena.The experimental nature of his work often yields unexpected results measurable only through photographic processes. Charland earned a BFA in photography from MassArt in 2004, an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, as a Trustees Fellow, in 2010, and was a participant at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 2009. In 2016 Charland received the prestigious Pollock-Krasner Foundation grant in photography.
Daniel Kraus (DK): Are there any specific thinkers or writers, within or outside of photography and art, that have influenced your creative practice?
Caleb Charland (CC): Several years ago I read The Ten Most Beautiful Science Experiments by George Johnson. He describes how science in the twenty-first century has become industrialized with research teams the size of corporations and budgets in the millions of dollars. Until recently earth shaking science came from an individual pair of hands. Experiments that marked the edge understanding were performed on a table top by a single mind confronting the unknown. The experiments he highlighted were designed and conducted with such straight forward elegance they deserve to be called beautiful. Such as Galileo’s acceleration studies with an inclined plane, or Newton’s investigations of light with prisms.
He wrote “They were looking for rare moments. By using materials at hand the curious soul posed a question to the universe and persisted until it replied.”
This line spoke to me and seemed to describe what we do as artists. It affirms that even in these times of massive science it is essential to be simple, logical and elemental. I hope my work finds some sort of harmony with this idea. We can make modest explorations of the phenomena that formed and commands our universe right in the kitchen, the garage, or in the studio.
(DK): Is there any specific memory or moment you can point back to where you first made the connection between science and photography?
(CC): I realized years ago that this work began long before I was able to make the photographs in Demonstrations. I grew up in the nineteen-nineties and was raised on P.B.S. I was fascinated by Bill Nye and the other science shows on public television. Watching Bob Ross create a world in a half hour still feels like magic to me.
I also grew up in a do it yourself household and learned to appreciate the possibilities that tools and materials hold. There’s one day I go back to when I think about my work. It was the summer of nineteen-eighty nine, somewhere on the edge of July and August. My dad spent his vacations pounding nails, sawing boards, and making his mark on the world. His life was work and our house was his medium.
On this particular day we got up early, we always did when there was lumber to cut. I remember the smell of sawdust at daybreak while watching the particles scatter through the early morning sunlight. I was nearly nine at the time and learning there was something magic in those materials.
Snapping the chalk line expelled electric blue nebulae; A mishandled hammer could draw sparks from a nail; While copper pipe, in a propane halo, emitted lime green meteorites in all directions. These moments hover in my consciousness as visual echoes of the cosmos, revealed to me then in steel, dust, and flame. If each picture is a puzzle, the pieces formed that summer day. I was still young and at full capacity of wonder.
(DK): When pre-visualizing a photograph, how many attempts will it typically take to successfully photograph the demonstrations? Were there any particularly difficult or dangerous ones to perform and photograph?
(CC): My draftsmanship is non-existent however I do keep a sketchbook where I develop ideas and make very primitive drawings. This process helps me work out the basic framework of an image before trying it out in front of the camera. Sometimes an idea is just a phrase or a series of words until a beloved “Ah Ha!” moment hits.
Solid Liquid Gas for example was written on a page in the sketchbook for months. As I mentioned above I loved watching Bill Nye the Science Guy when I was a kid. One episode was about the phases of matter. Solid Liquid Gas is repeated throughout the show. The words have a good rhythm and became an ear worm while I was making this work.
The “Ah Ha” moment hit when I learned of a simple science experiment about making a vacuum in a pint glass. First, you place a lemon wedge in the middle of a saucer of water then place an open book of matches on top of the wedge. When you light the matches and cover them with an upside down pint glass the flame burns the oxygen inside the glass creating a vacuum. The water in the saucer rises up into the glass filling the void from the burned up oxygen.
Once I had the solution for the gas portion of the image, the rest was rather straightforward.
Solid, to the left of the image, is simply ice cast inside a pint glass. Liquid, in the center of the image, displays water, oil, and alcohol (in order from bottom to top) in separate layers. Gas, to the right, utilized a candle instead of matches. The exposure was made just after the candle flame burned out and was illuminated by a studio flash to freeze the motion. You can see the rippled water at the bottom of the glass as it rushes in to fill the void. I really enjoy working out the structure of the image as it balances from left to right by the orientation of the pint glasses. Solid is upside down, liquid is right side up, and gas is upside down.
One thing I’d like to mention to young artists is that you almost never get it in one try. I think I tried two or three set-ups with this idea and I would often shoot several negatives for each set-up. Each time you re-shoot it you see what works and how to make it better. So I always approach each set-up as the first step in an unknown quantity of steps. Having a dedicated work space where you can leave things set-up makes each additional attempt much quicker so you can simply change the factors that will improve the piece. In the past I’ve dedicated one side of my apartment bedroom as a work space or even asked the landlord to let me use a small area of the basement. Be resourceful and make the most of what you have at hand.
(DK): Your work references time, motion, the natural environment, and other phenomena, but which would you say is the biggest collaborator in your work across your career?
(CC): When I give an artist lecture I always begin with Study with Flashlight. This image displays photography’s ability to both stop time and compress large periods of time into one visual plane. The setup was in a darkened room however, I placed a studio flash out of frame on the left side of the picture. The flashlight is suspended by a string that is tied to a wooden support. After setting the flash light in motion I waited until it arrived at just the right spot in its path of motion. I then fired the shutter causing the flash to go off thus freezing the flashlight and illuminating the room in a fraction of a second. The shutter was set to remain open in the darkened room to capture the motion of the flashlight’s bulb as it gradually lost momentum and ultimately stopped completely. The spiral shape indicates the loss of momentum through time.
I think my biggest collaborator, as you put it, is photography itself. I continue to investigate what is still possible with photographic materials. My series Inversions utilized the negative to positive characteristics of traditional analogue photography. One half of each of these works is used as a paper negative to print the other side of the image on a single sheet of light sensitive paper. BioGraphs turned sheets of film into petri-dishes and allowed bacteria to grow and trace its life cycle in the silver or color dyes in the emulsion of the film.
Most recently my series Sundial uses color separation to create color images with black and white film. This series seems to encompass several of my other investigations to date. It draws on time, motion, nature as studio, and the motion of the earth around the sun. Selections from this series can be seen here.
(DK): How did growing up in Maine shape your creative practice?
(CC): I was very fortunate to have grown up in Maine. I think experiencing all four seasons instills an inherent sense of time in a young mind. Nature is so close by and accessible that you can’t help but get outdoors and see what there is to see, something I still do to this day. The house I helped my father remodel was located on twenty acres of fields and woods. I spent the afternoons exploring and building forts and all that good stuff. Then in highschool when I started learning photography I naturally started bringing the camera along to record what there was to see.
I also feel like a practitioner and a product of Yankee ingenuity as they say. A spirit of self reliance, do it yourself, and inventiveness are tied to the northeastern states. A quick inquiry on wikipedia says it well, “Yankee ingenuity characterizes an attitude of make-do with materials on hand. It is inventive improvisation, adaptation and overcoming of shortages of materials.”
(DK): How do you balance using control and serendipity in your work? Is it difficult to let unpredictable processes unfold in the darkroom or studio?
(CC): As I continue to make work I find that the unexpected occurrences are the most interesting to me. With this series I thought of each set up as an arena in which the interactions of the objects and forces were allowed to reveal something curious. You can’t control the shape of flames, sparks, or smoke. I found it rather serendipitous that my hands were recorded in Cube with Ruler and Penlight, that was definitely not in the sketchbook. While I was lighting and tossing Three Hundred Matches into a funnel, you can see where two matches missed, just to the upper left of the funnel.
Even in the apparently more controlled or static images, such as Wooden Box With Horseshoe Magnet there were surprising occurrences. The magnet was balanced on the edge of the box, held in place by the nails in the magnetic field. I liked how this set the locally strong force of the magnet against the colossal force of gravity. At the time I was using forty watt light bulbs to illuminate the set up. This required rather long exposure times, from several minutes to a few hours. Just after setting everything up I bumped into the table on which everything was set. Since there was very little friction other than the air in the room the nails began to swing back and forth in the magnetic field. I had to wait a long time until they lost momentum before beginning the long exposure. Looking back I kind of wish I had made an exposure with a few nails in motion… hmmm…