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Five Alchemists: Contemporary Photographers Explore 19th-Century Techniques

If you’ve been to the Wichita Art Museum to see the daguerreotype exhibition Photographic Wonders but did not go downstairs, you missed a significant show.

Typically, WAM does a call-and-response structure with the main attraction upstairs and a response show downstairs. But this response show, Five Alchemists: Contemporary Photographers Explore 19th-century Techniques, marks three important landmarks for WAM:

  1. It is not a purchased show.
  2. This is the first show organized by curator Lisa Volpe that is not culled from the permanent collection.
  3. Volpe’s exhibition sees the resurrection of historic photographic processes as a shift in contemporary photography, and I think she’s on to something.

In the digital age, photographers that still use film are seen as old-school die-hards. But the five artists that Volpe brings together are taking lesson from much older, more obscure schools.
David Emitt Adams creates tintypes on rusted cans found in the arid Arizona landscape. The images are of the Arizona landscape where the object was discovered, and the result is a hybrid sculpture-photograph.

Jody Ake uses wet-collodion ambrotypes, a precursor to tintypes. Like daguerreotypes, ambrotypes are singular objects, and the wet process creates inconsistencies that make each print as unique as the portrait sitter.

Heidi Kirkpatrick’s creates Prussian-blue cyanotypes on domestic fabric items, like throw pillows and vintage children’s clothes. A cyanotype is made with objects blocking light to leave a white space contrasting on a rich blue surface, like capturing an object’s shadow.

Eric Mertens carries forward the tradition of daguerreotypes. With similar subject matter as the 19th-century objects upstairs, his series “Occupational Portraits” makes it difficult to tell when the image was made.

Ethan Turpin has a bit of fun with the once immensely popular stereographs that let people for the first time see a 2-D image in 3-D. He used the archive of the Keystone View Company and digitally combined images for fantastical scenes.

If you are photography nerd, you will love this exhibition. And if you are not, you might become one.