Caleb Charland: Inquisitive & Blasphemous

Caleb Charland’s photographs—which are in no way the product of digital wizardry and entirely the product of a highly creative brain—are the consequence of a formative period in his life during which he was left unattended in a darkroom for extended periods of time. As a student whose talent was obvious, he was given free rein in his high school’s photo lab. This freedom to experiment, to break the rules and ask innumerable "what if" questions, shaped an artist who eventually would create a literally wonderful body of work.

Wonder is the precise name for the sensation Charland wants his viewers to experience. Images such as "Attempting To Paddle Straight at the Moon, 2010" are interesting enough to draw viewers in on their own, but the clues the photographer leaves within the frame and title shore up the wonder-filled experience.

For this image, Charland secured his camera to a canoe and paddled for two hours. The concept is simple and the effect, dramatic; this makes for wonder.

"That was on Hopkins Pond," Charland says, "a pond here in Maine where my folks have a little summer cabin. I spent three or four nights; it was the full moon at the end of June 2010. The first couple of nights, I didn’t really know what I was doing; I didn’t even know if it was going to work, so I just did laps around the pond. Then the third or fourth night, I was like, oh, what if I make this into this contest with myself and I try to stay in that moonlight path that comes down on the water. So I spent about two hours just trying to slowly keep the canoe going toward the moon. It just seemed like a beautiful gesture."

Charland’s works are the products of sublime gestures. He flicked a BIC® some 1,500 times over four hours to create a flaming ball of light ("Light Sphere with My Right Arm and Cigarette Lighter, 2009"), and he’s exposed film to fireworks and flames in order to record the result ("Sparkler Held One Inch Over Transfer Paper, 2009"). He even created the cosmos in the palm of his hand with nothing but a pen and a flatbed scanner ("Black Dots on My Palms Anywhere Lines Cross, Scanned and Inverted to Look Like Stars, 2009"). He says all of this work is simply the manifestation of the curiosity that lives in "the wonder gap"—the space between knowledge and uncertainty.

"I think that’s the sensation," he says. "You’re not quite informed yet, but you’re not totally uncertain. You know something is happening, but you haven’t defined it yet. I think the image begins in that gap. I’ve heard wonder described as that state of being. I want to place viewers in that gap; they can travel with me through the making of the image. Maybe the gap is that place between the image plane and the title card, right where the viewer stands in the gallery.

"I obviously want the image to draw them closer to the gallery wall," Charland adds, "but when they get there, hopefully they become kind of a visual detective. In some pieces, I’ll try to leave as much of my process in the image as I can and give a little clue with the title. I hope people are intrigued and it gets their mind going. That’s why we go look at paintings—to go somewhere else for a little while."

Caleb Charland is in the midst of a meteoric rise as an artist. Speaking with amazement about these sudden successes, he comments, "Sometimes just that it worked is fascinating for me. I mean, I know I did it, but sometimes the natural things that happen are way more intriguing than my hand in it. It’s sort of allowing natural tendencies of the world to kind of record themselves in a way, too." Using himself in many images, he says it’s performative, not performance. "I wouldn’t say I’m a performance artist—that seems like a whole different conversation—but it’s performative in that I’m using the body as a machine, or as the mechanism. The photograph is ultimately the end, that is the work, and everything before that is the process to make the work. It’s performative, but it’s kind of important to delineate that it’s not performance art."

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."

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."

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."

Adds Charland, "There’s also something to be said for acknowledging one’s limitations and working within them. I’ve chosen photography, so my creative mind thinks within its boundaries. Much of the work involves creating forms or sculpture with light. Photography allows for multiple moments in time and space to hover together in the final print. This compression and addition of light-based visual elements is endlessly intriguing to me. That it works is just magical. I’ve always been a sucker for the fact that light can be indexically traced in a precious metal."

In 2010, Charland found his work suddenly earning him Internet fame. He was getting mentions on blogs and websites (like Gizmodo and StumbleUpon), and his work was exposed to a massive audience. In that group were people who otherwise never would have seen his images on a gallery wall—including some unlikely viewers who got in touch to tell him about the impact of his work.

"It was this wonderful few months," he says, "where I was getting these random emails from people all over the world who had some science background or an artist background, and they were just almost like thanking me for using science in a way that was illustrative and beautiful. I had a few high school science teachers who were like, ‘I love what you’re doing. Where were you 30 years ago when I was trying to teach high school physics?’ I kind of like that it’s not just for an art crowd."

"Light Sphere with My Right Arm and Cigarette Lighter" took some four hours to execute. Charland describes the process and an unexpected element: "That’s where that semi-performative element comes in. Usually when you use a lighter, you strike it two or three times at most. There are about 32 angles in the image, and on each angle I struck the lighter 50 times. So what is that, about 1,500? And then there’s that silhouette in the middle, which was completely unexpected. The fact that the silhouette was there was something I hadn’t foreseen."

Science teachers may love him, but Charland was no science geek. As a kid, he helped his father remodel the family home and was impressed by the materials and processes involved, and the sort of alchemy that occurred in simple acts such as hammering a nail and sawing wood. It wasn’t until high school—when he was turned loose in the darkroom—that he fully developed the nose for experimentation that still drives his work today.

"Right from the beginning," Charland says, "being unattended in the darkroom kind of gave me this experimental, playful, inquisitive nature. Even my intro to color class in undergrad, where we’re supposed to be learning about color temperature, I’m making negatives out of plants and rubber cement, and putting those in the enlarger, which was kind of a direct line from what I was doing in high school—melting negatives together and exploring the more tactile nature of the medium. I did learn how to print actual photographs, but I think around that same time I was getting into long exposures and night photography just to learn about color balance and stuff."

After college and graduate school, Charland was ready to get a real job. He returned home to Maine, where he always felt he created his best work, with plans to become an X-ray tech. The science classes required for that training, though, soon stirred his creative needs.

Charland’s Gear
Cameras, Lenses & Film
Cambo monorail 4×5 camera
Schneider 90mm and 135mm lenses
Fujifilm Fujicolor Pro 160S film

"I did a year of prerequisites," he says. "I took algebra and anatomy and physiology and things like that. It just kind of got the gears turning. All these things were falling into place—I was back where I had access to all these tools and that creative side. I was also getting fascinated by all these fun facts in science class, and I just started experimenting in front of the camera with everyday phenomena—basically finding things around the house and just trying to find the magic in them with photography."

Adds Charland, "We’re all curious about things around us, more so when we’re kids. Time allowed our minds to wander and wonder, back before bills and jobs and deadlines took over our lives. For me, my work isn’t so much an escape; it’s more about being consumed by an idea and spending the time and money to get the idea to manifest on film."

You can see more of Caleb Charland’s work at

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