On Monday, Oct. 22, Associate Professor of Art (Photography and Digital Media) Colby Caldwell gave his first Artist Lecture, Exhuming the Present – The Photograph as Site, to begin Artweek. Filling up the seats with students and faculty, Caldwell’s presentation, as noted in an all-campus email, featured photographic work from his two exhibitions, gun shy and spent, held in Washington, D.C. last spring. This work was done over the course of 10 years on Caldwell’s St. Mary’s County property.
Senior Stephanie Scott was enthusiastic about the lecture and said she attended this event because photography interested her the most in her field of art, while also pointing out that she was eager to see Caldwell’s work.
This was the first time Caldwell had had the opportunity to talk about his work for the SMCM community, though he has held panels and discussions on other artists’ works before. In general, Caldwell’s lecture focused on the influence that place and technology has had on his artistic ideas and overall understanding of his work as a photographer, while also exploring the medium of photography over the past 10 years. More specifically, however, two rituals concerned Caldwell, that of walking and hunting, and also “the ritual one develops with technology and tools when one’s making art.”
Caldwell then gave a brief overview of his photographs during this ten-year period, which started in 2002 when he moved from D.C. to St. Mary’s, where he would accept a one-year contract as an instructor at SMCM before being hired full-time. He wanted to explore how and why his work had changed in subject matter and content, saying that the technology he chose to capture images was inconstant, changing over the course of time; three examples of his photographs demonstrated his use of the super eight film camera, the still camera, as well as the digital scanner.
The talk then moved to the topic of place, during which Caldwell illustrated how a photographer’s “shift in location” can affect the look of his or her pictures. He demonstrated this with the example of Jackson Pollock’s paintings, “Moby Dick” (1943) and “Lavender Mist” (1949), two pieces that maintained the painter’s original technique, but were stylistically different having been painted in two different places in which the painter had resided. “I saw a parallel,” said Caldwell about Pollock, “at least spiritually, in thinking about how a change of place had an effect on how he saw his medium.”
Prior to his move down to the county, Caldwell’s work was influenced by super eight films his grandfather shot in Montana in the 1960s, which depicted hunting trips. As these images became formative for Caldwell growing up, they would become the basis of his work for 10 years. He would take photographs by exhuming stills from the frames of these films to understand his grandfather and the significance of hunting. He began using black and white imaging, eventually transitioning to color in the late 1990s with the onset of advancements in digital technology and color printing, which allowed him to print on paper instead of plastic.
Despite these efforts, Caldwell said, “It was after my first couple of years here that I realized I was kind of lost in nostalgia, that I was minding my grandfather’s films from the 1960s instead of experiencing what was right out my front door.”
Caldwell then set out to become a part of his new and present environment in St. Mary’s County using a different tool, the still camera, to take portraits of visitors on his rented property south of the College. The pictures were taken in one spot, but during different seasons and Caldwell noticed that the surrounding landscape changed while the space did not.
Through this experiment, Caldwell was not only able to apply the hunting ritual into his present location, but the camera also signaled in him his interest in technology and tools that could be employed to alter his images. Citing the famous 1941 photograph, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, by Ansel Adams, Caldwell argued that technology did not take away authenticity to still images.
Adams’s development of the zone system, a technique of burning and dodging and using contrast and filters to manipulate a photograph for desired effect, was, to Caldwell, a clear example of how current technology, in any era, could be utilized to enhance a picture. “As artists, it’s also important to consider how we interact with our space to create place by the tools and technology we mediate it with,” said Caldwell.
Next, Caldwell went on walks on his land, taking pictures of hunting blinds through the seasons with his still camera in order to be less static. This also resonated with his intrigue in walking and hunting from his youth. He then began to find and take pictures of discarded shotgun shells at these sites with a digital scanner. By doing all this that defined his work of the mid-2000s, Caldwell believes that he embraced landscape, a traditional aspect of photography, through a metaphorical eye.
Caldwell built on the importance of the digital scanner as a camera as he explained how he also interacted with the remnants of nature and hunting. He later collected dead birds, parts of birds, and milkweed (which gave the appearance of a bird’s skeleton) and discovered that taking pictures of these with a scanner held significance in that a picture was taken from the underside of these objects, producing an image not seen by the naked eye.
Caldwell’s lecture resonated with senior Chance Hazelton, who said, “I personally was looking at what he was saying about how the environment changes his work based on space and context.” This idea resonated because her in-studio SMP work is taking on a different visual language from her previous work done in her art classes.
At conclusion, Caldwell took questions from the audience and advised aspiring photographers to not limit themselves to materials and procedures they may be expected to engage in.