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  • Writer's pictureRitchard Allaway

05/06/23 - Exploring Land Samples with Photographic Practice

Exploring Land Samples with Photographic Practice


22nd May 2023:

Experimentation: Working with Samples



With my samples collected within petri dishes I have set out exploring how I can use them to produce visual outcomes. I have discussed my plans to utilise the Marx generator as a tool to create marks and movements within the landscape but powered by the Earth. For these experiments I will not be using the earth batteries due to the current status of these not being ready. The plan then for working with these samples was to be seen as an initial series of experimentation tests. These would work by placing the Marx generator current into the samples collected and watching for movement, observing how the current reacts and interacts with the samples, attempt to capture interactions using dark room photographic methods and through digital methods, apply development to any visual outcome produced.


To begin the initial experiments and before samples were collected, I wanted to observe how the Marx current would react to a soil type. I collected a small sample of soil from my garden and placed it within a petri dish. I decided on using petri dishes due to their circular nature which would add to the visual complexion when ‘photographed’ and I am drawn to the dish with its relationship to science. The current reacted to the soil, with the electrical static ‘catching’ the soil almost magnetically which in turn (when moving the Marx current cables) moves the soil samples around. This was not expected and took me as a surprise. My instinct and hopes were for the soil to ‘break’ apart and a crack like mark would be left, instead I became the controller of the movement of dirt. This to me held qualities that were of a drawing method. I will state here that I will discuss drawing a little later within this entry, but I am acknowledging my awareness of drawing. With my ability to move the soil, I played about with this process some more just allowing for the soil and Marx current to interact. After a couple of minutes or so, I started to notice the current dwindling in strength and that the power was draining. I tested the battery with the metre and enough voltage remained within the battery, my thoughts are that the generator can only produce a certain amount of electrical current within a short period of time. It is after all just a cheap 3-6V practice tool but something to consider when working with electricity.






Moving forward in time, I have collected a series of six samples from my trip to Danby. Each sample is different from the next, from river mud, ground lichen and dry earth, I made certain to gather alternative samples to help gauge how the Marx generator would react to different land types. From a previous entry, ‘An Earth Battery and an Arc Generator’ I discussed and evidenced my attempts to experiment with an E.B powering the Marx generator. Within the conversation I stated how I suspected that my Ilford developer fluid and fix might be out of date, so instead of using these products again, I took it upon myself to use resources from my work at the Northern School of Art. I am luckily enough to be able to access a rather larger dark room, including all developing equipment and other digital and non-digital technologies.



The set up I had to work with was that of a standard photographic dark room; an enlarger, dev, stop and fix in trays, photographic paper (glossy and lustre) and a sink for washing. I had a plan that would entail me applying the electrical current into the soil samples within the dark room, transferring the sample onto light sensitive paper and then capture the samples as a form of photogram. A photogram (for those unsure as to what one is) is a very simple photographic process in which objects can be placed onto light sensitive paper and when the paper is exposed to light (preferably from directly above), the objects silhouette on the paper are captured. This can only be made visible after developing the paper in developer, stop and fixative. It is a basic photographic process but can be visually effective if explored more creatively i:e using acetate imagery, or partially translucent objects, multiple exposures etc. The petri dishes used are made from a translucent plastic and therefore, the majority of the dish would not be captured onto the paper except for the circular rim, creating a boundary between the negative external space and the soil sample. Once I had transferred my soil sample within the petri dish across to the enlarger placing it centrally onto the paper I would expose the sample and the paper to a time of around six seconds. During the exposure time process, I would always explore different timings, but six seconds seemed to work the best for this experiment. I should also state that when using the Marx generator within the dark room, any light sensitive paper remained hidden within the dark bag, so that no light bleeding would occur.


What outcomes did I manage to produce then? Well from this experimentation I am very pleased with the initial photographic outcomes. I have stated earlier that I wished for the soil sample to break apart, but with the soil moving I was instead left with the samples scattered, broken, and burnt. The enlarger lamp was able to develop between each scatter and break, producing outcomes that were random but something of value. Marks are left, movement is visible, and an outcome is evidenced through a process I have been wanting to work with for some time (can this process be made within the field?).


Image order:

Top Row L - R: #1, #2, #3 - Bottom Row L - R: #4, #5, #6


The top row consists of a dryer soil, all from the same sample. I experimented with this soil type first as I had experience from my initial tests and I thought it would be a good place to start. From images #1 - #3 there is a lot of negative space coloured white, but with a photogram, what is white is not negative space and instead is the material. When light passes through, between or within materials and space, it will expose the photo sensitive paper turning it black. For this series of outcomes, the black marks are in fact where light has travelled through resulting in the first thought of white negative space actually being the soil material. This top row within a dryer soil appears to have a fragile, 'spikey', staccato complexion, (if those could be the right descriptive words), where each exposed point is quite scattered and in multiple places. There appears to be a build up of black exposed areas densely populated within the centre (or near enough) and beyond the central point, less exposure occurs. I would state that little activity has occurred as a reaction from the electrical current within the soil, but aesthetically, it works. There is something within these first photogram samples that appeal to me.


The bottom samples #4 - #6 are of two land types. #4 and #5 have a mixture of moss, and a wetter soil type whereas #6 is just a small sample of moss (Tamarisk). With all three samples, there is a clear difference from #1 - #3, I would say more fuller, possibly denser, even populated perhaps, either way the contrast is visible. It is a lot harder to differentiate between what is exposed areas of paper created by electrical current and what is exposed paper caused by the shape of the tamarisk. I do not think there is an impact that demonstrates an electrical break within the sample as seen within #1 - #3 and therefor I will have to return to these samples when I produce a stronger output of voltage. #6 has two small white under exposed sections on the right side which look like a firing point but unfortunately this is not that.



I always say to my students, 'ok this is great, but where do you go next with this work? How can you develop it further? and why?'. I always find that there is never an end point to work and I have been saying the same thing about my practice for over a decade (any artist would). With these tests I always knew that the photogram would not be the finalised outcome, but because of my knowledge/experience with manipulating a non-digital photograph into a digital outcome, it was a sure thing that I would take my experiments further. With the photograms literally being so mono I decided to apply some colour to the image. I think subconsciously I had this interest in bringing in blue tones but I realise now that I had (some weeks prior to this) been reading 'Shadow Catches' and looking at the work of Susan Degrees. Degrees photographic work 'Toad spawn' works in the same technical process but inside a jam jar and with live tadpoles, which over time grow to be toads until they leave the jam jar. The work is circular, symmetrical, with black exposed negative space and finalised with blue tones. I would say my digital blue addition is not intended to mimic that of Degrees but instead a simple exploration of placing a colour within the visual outcome, and witnessing what occurs. Bringing the photograms into a digital realm enables me to pursue a fourth technique within the whole process. I enjoy the freedom to work non-digitally and digitally, initiating experimentation and further outcomes. The overall process of this experimentation has seen me work in the field collecting land samples, then using an electrical current to move the land, which I then use traditional photographic practice to capture said land and lastly move the image over and into a digital format.


Before I close this conversational entry, I just want to briefly return to my thoughts on this idea of drawing. I do believe that there is an act within the process of placing an electrical current into the land samples. I was able to move the current and in turn the land sample moved with me, magnetically almost (as I stated), but I had the ability to shift and move enabling lines and cracks to appear. These appearances then left a mark on the bottom of the petri dish/photographic paper. I talk about performance within my practice, acting within the field walking, collecting samples etc, but what if the performative act is also drawing? Could drawing with an electrical current become a method within my practice and this process, one that is as simple as me moving the Marx generator across and through the surface. My concern though is that I am not allowing the land to create the image, instead I am the one in control. I did think recently when on my run and using the strava app, what if I draw my walking routes within the land, would that complete some recycled landscape? .... something to consider and explore.

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