People are increasingly alienated from their hands. Hands that made buildings and sidewalks, bridges, and medicine. These days, machines do much of our art for us. This is not a bad thing, quite the opposite. Without Photoshop many photographers and illustrators would not have as much of a presence as they do online. Word processing software allows writers to craft documents more efficiently than any typewriter could. Songs can be composed and edited completely on a computer without ever needing to grasp an instrument. Far from taking over, machines often complement human endeavors.
Yet there is immeasurable satisfaction that comes from working with one’s hands. Samantha Metzner, a photographer from North Carolina, knows this especially well. She has devoted much of her training as an artist to modes of photography from yesteryear. This does not only refer to film development, but even more antiquated processes. When asked what she liked about the dark room, Metzner responded she “enjoyed the hand-on feeling…You can get more in depth with your medium.”
Metzner goes deep back into the nineteenth century for her inspiration. She is particularly proficient at cyanotypes, a form of photography which uses UV radiation to develop the image. Cyanotypes have a distinctive bluish hue, a quality that can render the subjects seeming somewhat ghostlike. An apparition or a hazy window reflection. Metzner expanded on this with and was able to produce a series of cyanotypes on hand-held mirrors. The process was not easy. “It took me about a year of trial and error to get the right mixture of photo grade gel and normal film development chemistry so that the images would stick to the mirrors.” The result is haunting and beautiful. These mirrors with faces plastered on them which may not look away seem as though they were pulled from a trunk in someone’s attic. Though seemingly hexed, they do not give off an air of foreboding, but rather repose and contemplation.
Another alternative process Metzner uses is called caffenol printing. Using simple ingredients anyone can purchase at a drug store (instant coffee, Vitamin C, and washing soda), the process is similar to more modern film development techniques. However instead of bathing the film in expensive chemicals, one uses the substances mentioned above to achieve a remarkably similar result. This process is simple enough that it could be taught in any school art class. In fact, this is Metzner’s goal. After she gets her yoga teacher certification and goes to work in Iceland at a bed and breakfast for a few months, she plans on returning to get her MFA in Art Education and teach high school students about historical processes. The benefits are many, but of particular interest to Metzner is what the dark room teaches.
“For me, darkroom photography is great for learning mindfulness and patience, it’s all about letting go. If you put in the [time] and do good work and let go of the result, something good will happen.” As we grow further away from our hands, it is good to have people like Metzner committed to bringing us closer to them.
Metzner’s work can be found on her Facebook page and at her blog.
Words by Evan Nyarady.
Photos provided by the artist.