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2020 SPE Annual Conference: Hosted by The University of Houston | Kathrine G. McGovern College of the Arts | School of Art

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Past SPE Annual Conferences

Christa Bowden

SPE Member since 2003
Member Chapter: Southeast

Still Flight

A few years ago, winged creatures, recently expired, began to find me. Or perhaps, I started to notice them in my path... a moth attracted to a porch lamp and fallen in the sunlight of the morning, a hummingbird prostrate on cement steps after hitting an exterior window, a bat who flew accidentally into a friend's car on a long night drive home. These creatures are to me, first and foremost, visually interesting. They embody the idea of the still life, the nature morte, in that they are beautiful and worthy of artistic evaluation. It is the gift of photography that their beauty can be immortalized, and essentially transformed by the artist's gaze. These are not biological studies of specimens, and these photographs are very definitely made, not taken.

Process and subject are intimately intertwined in this body of work. The subjects are explored through a combination of 19th and 21st century photographic processes. The ambrotypes are created by coating black glass with collodion and silver nitrate, and then exposing the wet plate with 19th century lenses, giving the subject a softness of focus and an ambiguity. In contrast, the same subject is photographed directly with a flatbed scanner. This method renders the subject with clarity and excruciating detail: a moth's body is furry, its wings scaly, its antennae, like the fronds of a new fern. Comparing these processes, and their ability to transform the same subject, reveals to me the power that I have as an artist over my subject, and ultimately how I choose to reveal my subject to the viewer. I believe that in the end, photography is as much subjective editing as it is a truth document.

There is an alchemy that occurs between the subject and the process for me. The ingredients are poetic: ether, grain alcohol, collodion, silver, and lavender in the ambrotypes, pigment and paper in the prints, sometimes layered with the beeswax and resin of encaustic. I hope that there is a sensory experience for the viewer beyond the visual. The smell of lavender and honey are as beautiful to the nose as a moth or dragonfly in flight is to the eyes. Works on paper, pinned to the wall like a specimen in a Riker mount, are not unlike the delicacy and texture of a moth wing, fragile and exposed, easily damaged by touch.

Ultimately, these are small visual memorials to the fallen. After they have given me their visual gifts, I often place them in the woods where they can return to the earth from whence they came. The irony in this work is that it is simultaneously about life and death, about flight and stillness, about photographic truth and the constructed image, about the alchemy of process and its ability to manipulate the subject. But above all, this work is about the ability of a photograph to hold a subject and a moment in time perfectly still, long after that subject has left the earth and time marches forward beyond that moment. In the end, memory is most valuable gift that photography gives us.

Antheraea polyphemus (polyphemus moth), 19th century

Antheraea polyphemus (polyphemus moth), 21st century

Odonata epiprocta (dragonfly), 19th century

Odonata epiprocta (dragonfly), 21st century

Actias luna (luna moth), 19th century

Actias luna (luna moth), 21st century

Dragonfly & Cicada Wings, 19th century

Dragonfly & Cicada Wings, 21st century

Moth Study IV

Moth Study I

Moth Study III

Moth Study V

Moth Study II

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