Whether it is true or not, it makes logical sense that the Inuit peoples of the north have 20 words for snow.
It seems equally natural — and yet astounding — that the vocabulary dedicated to the art of putting ink to paper reaches similarly abundant levels.
Such is the case with “The Physical Print,” a photography collection that provides a snapshot history to the printing process. The exhibit is as eclectic as photography itself: it contains everything from an 1840 leaf print to a 2004 black and white photo of cameras.
And indeed, the vocabulary is vast — terms like platinum prints and gum bichromate are thrown casually into the captions.
Because of the nature of “Print,” the exhibit can be initially intimidating. However, at its core, it can be broken down to one theme: the interaction between science and art.
There is first, of course, the art. The photos, though defying any type of grouping, are contained entities of beauty, from the shadowy folds of an Echeveria flower to the joyous kinetics of a disco club. Above all, they are a jolt from normal life that provide a narrative window into a moment of time.
Even those images that seem more mundane, such as the 1925 portrait of a young woman, are made unique because of the age and history etched into the gauzy form of the photograph.
And then, there is the science. The captions are unique because they contain information about each photo’s printing process, including the time required for exposure, the chemicals used in the development and even the mechanical reasons for the “mistakes” on an image (such as blurred edges or spots). Even the framing of the photos, such as the “mass-produced cardboard frame” on a 1940s portrait, was influenced by availability and the trends of the time.
The power of the picture, then, comes from combining these elements of aesthetic and technological expertise. The chemicals, and even the mistakes, weave themselves into the framing of the picture until one cannot be thought of without the other.
Who can imagine historical pictures without the dream-like sepia wash? — which, by the way, served as a transferring technique to preserve the image from film to photograph. Art cannot exist without its physical form. In this case, history affected that form so that the technique is now inseparable from the art itself.
There was one picture, by an unknown photographer, which depicts a dead child in her death bed. The daguerreotype, the technique used in the picture, is unique in that it required a long exposure time. It was ideal for subjects that did not move. The marriage of technique and subject is haunting in its coincidence, augmented by the final product; the result is a silvery, almost transparent image, delicate and ephemeral, changing form and shape with a shift in position and light.
Art School Dean Richard Benson, who assembled the collection, says in the caption that the technique and the subject “remind us of the brutal weeding out of humanity that birth and childhood entailed.” In this case, science provides a wordless commentary — and further transcends the image into art.