Everything old is new again

James Holroyd uses primitive lens to capture architectural strucure of flowers

The room is dominated by a large homemade sliding-box camera. Looming four feet long a construction of black foamcore duct tape and velvet James Holroyd’s principal artistic instrument is meant to take centre stage as his new photographic exhibition is as much about the process of creation as the artwork itself.

On display now at Newzones and running until January 11 Flora is Holroyd’s first solo exhibition in five years and the first to feature his recent explorations into the creative potential of primitive lens cameras and cyanotype printing. Typical of photography from the mid-1800s this delicate and painstaking process is now only rarely seen and difficult to master.

Shooting four- by five-inch negatives of flowers from his own garden Calgary’s back alleys and the Glenmore Reservoir Holroyd has made a concerted effort to match the delicacy and traditional relevance of his subject matter with his technique.

“I have long admired and been drawn to the large body of flower photography” explains Holroyd. “I like the architectural structure of flowers. Also there is a historical connection between cyanotype and flower photography — 19th century botanists used cyanotype to record botanical samples.”

As cyanotype is a contact-based printing process and requires negatives of the same size as the final print a digital step was required. The smaller negatives were scanned enlarged and then dissected into 10-by-10-inch squares that were printed in the darkroom directly onto archival plywood supports. The final step was to fit the separate supports together into one cohesive image.

The results are simple and elegant. From within the varnished Prussian blue brought on by the cyanotype fixative pale portraits of individual flowers emerge. The atmospheric nature of the images brought about by the “flawed” lens and the technical process provides an ethereal quality to the subjects. This effect is highlighted by the rich grain of the wood backing which shows through.

“I like the combination of the modernist minimalism of the compositions with the antique method of image capture and printing” says Holroyd. “I am drawn to a tension between a modernist aesthetic and other image qualities that make the work feel as if it comes from another time.”

As a local teacher in the Artstream program a joint project between Bow Valley College and the Alberta College of Art and Design Holroyd has a natural interest in keeping historical photographic processes alive. Before his work with primitive lens cameras and cyanotype he experimented with pinhole cameras lith film and bromoil processing. This interest has led Holroyd to align his work with the contemporary American photographic movement the Antiquarian Avant-Garde which attempts to reassert the materiality of photographs in an age dominated by digital cameras and inkjet printing.

According to Holroyd “using alternative photographic processes for the capture and printing of these images creates a warm and unpredictable ‘handmade’ quality that allows the photographs in this exhibition to float in a limbo between past and present.” This is an ability that modern photography has lost to some degree. “I want my audience to experience the pleasure of seeing something quite common in a new way.”

In part this is why the camera is placed in the centre of the exhibition. Visitors are encouraged to dip their heads beneath the velvet hood to see through the eye of the artist. Before them a vase of flowers is displayed upside down compressed and in all the flawed glory the primitive lens has to offer. It is the same image photographers viewed over 150 years ago and Holroyd has taken that and made it relevant and beautiful for the audience of today.