Floating World

by Barbara Smith

Brigitte Carnochan

“Dryad” – (2001) Hand-painted gelatin silver print


March 01, 2011 — Turning to her archives, Carnochan began poring over some of her favorite unused negatives and discovered that many of the minor negative flaws that are impossible to correct in the darkroom were suddenly easy to address digitally. “I was able to rescue some of these images from obscurity by scanning and then editing them in Photoshop,” Carnochan says. “Reading and rereading the poems and working with the negatives I truly loved, I began to make meaningful and symbolic connections.” Other times she was inspired to shoot anew. Whereas previously she had shot Konica infrared film, she now turned to her converted Canon EOS 5D to shoot digital “near infrared.”

Choosing a square format and montage process, most of the images seen here consist of at least two Photoshop layers. In order to achieve a seamless tonal continuity, Carnochan then developed and applied a custom quadtone profile to each montage in Photoshop. In a separate process, each poet’s name had been hand-lettered in black ink by photographer and calligrapher Richard Man. The calligraphy was then scanned, converted to red and incorporated as an additional layer.

All this is not to assume Carnochan is a Photoshop wiz. “I just play. I experiment and I make great use of the Undo command!” A far cry from the very controlled processes she had employed in the past, she finds that, “My favorite part of postprocessing is the spirit of adventure I enjoy in not being an expert. As much as I respect and admire others’ mastery of the program, I prefer the phenomenon of unanticipated consequences and happy accidents.”

Although this portfolio has a subtle, yet distinct Japanese quality akin to woodblock prints in the style of Ukiyo-e (literally, “pictures of the floating world”), Carnochan is quick to point out that, “I’m not Japanese, and I don’t really know much about the culture. I was responding purely on an emotional level to the poems. I’ve always been drawn to the classical aesthetics found in the natural world—the perfection of form, symmetry and ratios.” That the ultimate look of the collection would reflect a complementary response to the subject matter was an organic and evolutionary process. Carnochan is a poet at heart, and with the help of two translators, Hitomi Sugiura and Frederick Kotas, she was able to compose her own English versions of the poems to include with each print.

Much of Carnochan’s earlier work involved infrared film, the darkroom and labor-intensive hand coloring. (Both “Dryad” and “Hydrangea” are hand-painted gelatin silver prints). Although many of her tools have changed in this new body of work, her signature style, evocative voice and the lyric poetry of her vision are unmistakable. Note the similarity between “Dryad” (2001) and “Butterflies, Tell Me,” or “Hydrangea” (1999) and “Golden Bee,” for instance.

One however has to ask Carnochan whether she feels the so-called “instant gratification” of digital processes makes the images in Floating World any less fine art and craft than her previous collections. “Just about anyone can take a digital photograph,” she says. “But how many of the images are truly great? Artists get more than the occasional keeper due to forethought and vision. It’s consistency of vision that makes the difference. And as far as instant gratification, post processing in Photoshop is often just as time consuming as darkroom processing, if not even more so.”

Brigitte uses an Epson 3800 printer with archival Epson Ultrachrome pigment inks and a custom profile made by a friend, Son Do, exclusively for the uncoated handmade Japanese Kozo (mulberry) paper on which she prints. The texture of the paper, which is cut on three sides and torn at the bottom to create a delicate deckle-like edge, adds yet another dimension to the image. The series is available in two sizes.

Next up is another literary inspired portfolio, but this will be platinum-based using digital negatives. “While I do enjoy working on my computer, I’m eager to get back to the magic of coating paper and exposing images in my ‘dimroom.’ In printing platinum, the light can be dim…no bright daylight or tungsten, but I use yellow bug lights, which are actually quite bright. My darkroom opens into my garage, and when I’m printing platinum I can leave the darkroom door open because there is only one small window in the garage. Less claustrophobic and better for air circulation.”

She recently took Mark Nelson’s Platinum Workshop, has a new UV plate burner, and has been working at getting the process down to an art. “For me, this is the perfect union…the ability to create the layered montages and then the negatives in Photoshop, and then to move on to a hand-applied process for finishing.”

Style is the way in which something is expressed, whether visual or written. As eloquent and haunting as they are, haiku were often composed as hidden messages to distant lovers. Like the original poets, Carnochan created pictures of the mind: thoughtful, sensual, still or with just a whisper of movement. And, under it all, the suggestion of something unfilled, a quiet yearning. Style personified.

Brigitte Carnochan’s work is currently on view at Modernbook Gallery in San Francisco (modernbook.com), Verve Fine Arts in Santa Fe, NM (vervefinearts.com), Iris Gallery in Boston (irisgallery.net), Galerie BMG in Woodstock (galeriebmg.com), and Gallery 291 in San Francisco (gallery291.net). Visit her Web site at brigittecarnochan.com.


Barbara Smith is a photographer/author/instructor living in Los Angeles. Her expertise lies in post processing using both traditional and digital materials and supplies. Visit her Web site and online shop at bsmithphotography.com.

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