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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Caleb Charland: Inquisitive & Blasphemous

Caleb Charland’s physical manifestation of scientific curiosity is made of light and time

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Working in dim lighting is challenging for any photographer, but more so for Charland who shoots film, meaning he has to get the exposure right, and if he misses it, he won't know until hours later when the film comes back from the lab. He has become a master of handling the complex issue of reciprocity failure thanks to a simple rule of thumb. "It's super-simple," he explains. "If you're taking a picture with a view camera and it says you should expose for a second, you should add one stop so your exposure becomes two seconds. And then every time you add a zero to the time, you just add a stop to your exposure. It's been super-handy. It's like right on the money. I've done exposures up to eight hours long using this rule, and it came out well within the bounds of acceptability."
Simplicity helps to up the wonder quotient, which also makes the images approachable to a mass audience. You don't have to be a photography expert to appreciate them.

"I think people have a pretty good grasp on how photography works," says Charland. "They're not necessarily experts, but the idea, drawing with light or long exposures, they kind of get that because it's so ingrained in culture. That's why I always target eighth-grade science—after that, it becomes a lot of math and a lot of things that you can't necessarily see immediately. Most of my techniques are no more advanced than intro to photo stuff—long exposures, manually adding light to the film in front of the camera, etcetera. People really seem to respond to the quotidian nature of it."

Charland owes some of his inspiration to an unlikely, albeit equally weird and wonderful, source: the music of Tom Waits. Like Charland, Waits pays no heed to rules or conventions.

"I love his whole approach to sound recording," Charland says. "Part of it's just being inquisitive and blasphemous. If the dumpster in the back alley sounds better than your kick drum, throw a mic in it and just beat on it. I think this whole idea of 'high art' or whatever, I don't know, I think that's kind of a myth. I think it comes from wherever you need it to come from. And I don't think there's anything wrong with having fun making art."

Art, science, fun—it's all the same to Charland. Though his art school teachers helped him understand the importance of the "performative" aspects of his work, the end product is always being served by the technique. The print is the thing, although for the artist, the process is part of the wonder. He enjoys exploring a hypothesis, testing it with a camera.
Each picture begins as a question of what's still possible to photograph. By using the basic elements of the medium—light and time—I think there are still many things to discover.
"I think one of the reasons they invented science was to have a logical way to pursue the unknown," says Charland. "Like, well, we don't know what the hell it is, but let's pretend we do and then do some experiments pretending we know what we're talking about, and then those experiments will show us what we don't know about, and then we'll gather knowledge that way.

"You get the idea for the image," he continues. "It's like a hypothesis. Then you begin figuring out how to get it to manifest photographically so you design some experiments and field tests. My favorite part is the testing and tinkering, but it's more enjoyable in hindsight. In the moment, it can be quite stressful. I can spend days, weeks or months on a picture. I may tinker for a few hours or days and realize it isn't quite working. Then maybe a few weeks later the solution comes out of nowhere.

"Photography is a means to represent an experience within the world," he says. "The exposure is a certain length; the task takes so long, so it's a measurement of time and light and the activity before the camera. It's also a way to measure possibility. Each picture begins as a question of what's still possible to photograph. By using the basic elements of the medium—light and time—I think there are still many things to discover."


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