When I think nostalgically about the technology that defined the era of traditional photography prior to the digital age, the twin-lens-reflex camera is high on my list of mechanical favorites. The medium-format image has always been magical to me, instantly rendering artistic images, acutely modern in their compositions. Today, the TLR is still a beautiful, yet inexpensive option for shooting in the timeless square format.
It was to my enormous delight that we began a partnership six years ago with Phillip Graybill, a photographer who has mastered the art of translating images from his TLR seamlessly onto the digital canvas. Graybill, who specializes in portrait, fashion and lifestyle documentary photography, was given a Mamiya C220 in a chance encounter on a street by a complete stranger who thought Graybill might make better use of it. What Graybill ended up creating with the camera are fine-art photographic installations that have found collectors around the world.
Graybill’s recent show in New York, “Horse by Sea,” featured stunning photographs from the Deep Hollow Ranch in Montauk, New York. Established in 1658, it was one of the oldest working ranches in the United States. Getting access to the quaint setting, Graybill experimented with different shooting formats before settling on the TLR. After photographing a couple of horses with film, he knew that he would convert the photos to large fine-art prints.
“To me, the shape of the horse and how they were framed in the square format of my camera’s viewfinder felt very architectural, so when I was shooting I was simply imagining what I was framing being in a space. I started using the horse’s shape and then started reshooting the whole thing.” In a Kickstarter campaign that funded the exhibit, Graybill described the photo process, “On overcast days, I headed to the ranch to photograph the horses. I eventually got to know each of them so well, the images became individual portraits depicting each horse’s personality, quirks and beauty. What I didn’t know then was that these would be some of the last days most of these horses would spend on the ranch.”
Deep Hollow Ranch was sold in 2010, and Graybill says he’s grateful to have captured its beauty before it closed. “Horse by Sea” is a beautiful collection of Graybill’s images capturing the serenity of the Hamptons and the photographer’s inner connection to the ranch.
“This show is all about bringing to life what was once lost,” says Graybill. “Not only can the images not be recaptured again, but they were taken on film, with a camera that easily could have ended up in the garbage.”
Graybill starts his creative process on film, converting it to digital through high-resolution drum scanning, then printing it onto a fine-art Giclée canvas. For most artists, the final Giclée print marks the completion of their art, but Graybill’s unique process begins after we hand him the printed canvas. Taking the printed piece through a five-week process that includes natural waxes, resin, heat transfers and custom wood framing, Graybill begins with stretching the canvas over custom-built birch wood panels, and instead of folding the edges like you would with a traditional painting on canvas, he cuts the edges to create a modern look.
The Giclée prints require gentle handling, as matte canvas can scuff easily. The corners and edges of the wood panels are all sanded to round the edges and create a smooth transition for the resin application. Using a heat-transfer adhesive to adhere the canvas to the wood panel, Graybill prepares the piece for the resin application, which is the trickiest part of this process. Even a single dust speck would cause the entire print to be redone. He has created a convertible clean room in his studio that’s completely isolated, allowing him to control the temperature and keep the area dustproof. The resin takes almost five hours before it’s dust-free, so having a clean space is imperative. To make the coating as perfect as possible, the room and the resin material temperatures are set to about 80 degrees. This helps eliminate any bubbles to allow a perfectly smooth glass-like finish. He finishes a lot of his work with an epoxy resin, giving the piece a high-gloss finish that looks wet, creating a mesmerizing painterly aesthetic.
“In the end, each of my pieces is very sleek and simple, but to achieve this it has taken me years to find the right elements,” notes Graybill. “It’s a lot of work, but when you’re standing in front of one of the pieces, you just want to stare. At least, that’s what most of my clients say.”
Graybill credits the beginning of his artistic journey to a commercial photography assignment he was given to shoot for the “Ghosts” album for Nine Inch Nails. “I found my true artistic vision while shooting the project, and I’ve kept shooting in the same vein ever since,” he says. “It’s the reason I switched gears and started focusing on artwork. Like a light went off, and I all of a sudden had a creative version of X-ray vision.”
For the album project, Graybill was given the freedom to drive cross-country all by himself with just his cameras and the album music and shoot whatever he wanted. His work ended up on the album cover and as artwork for the limited-edition box set, and in the process he discovered the artist within.
“The idea is to take you away from what’s outside your front door—the bustling, the shoving, the rushing—and when you get home you can breathe,” says Graybill. “That’s what I’m focusing on now: finding something else happening in a photograph, discovering that which is organic.”
Graybill’s vision for that “organic” feeling in a photograph has created a beautiful marriage between analog photography, digital printing and traditional craftsmanship, rendering his photos into fine-art collectibles. It’s my hope that such innovative approaches that blend analog with digital traditional film will continue to play a significant role in shaping the aesthetic of fine-art photography in our digital era.