scott b. davis has earned a national reputation for his night photography. The San Diego Museum of Art is currently exhibiting a survey of his work from the past decade. And a show of recent work opens in March at jdc Fine Art.
A recent profile of davis in the Summerset Review offers a wonderfully detailed account of his process in the field. But it didn’t address what has intrigued me most about his work: namely, the material properties of the work itself. Ordinarily this isn’t something one is concerned with when viewing a photograph. But in davis’s case the material properties of the work seem to embody its content in interesting ways.
Your work is noted for its use of platinum printing. What are the specific properties of this process, and how does it suit your subject matter?
platinum printing is a 19th century photographic process, closely related to traditional printmaking in terms of technical expertise and the choice of materials at one’s disposal. it was heralded by turn of the century photographers, and considered by alfred stieglitz to be “the prince of all media”. it earned this distinction for an ability to render exquisite tones, but also because it was kept as a kind of ‘private reserve’ by master printmakers for their finest work. photographers historically used the process to capitalize on nuanced, delicate tones in their images. as a 21st century artist i’m interested in exploring ideas untouched by previous generations of photographers. night photography, first and foremost, is an act of discovery and one that invites a keen sense of perception. platinum printing, simply put, most closely replicates the experience of how i see at night. the combination of the two opens a minimalist dialog i find important.
What about the choice of paper? In describing your work the New York Times noted how the “grainy, velvety quality makes them seem almost painterly.” As a viewer I’m fascinated by this textural quality—which is strongest in the areas of “pure” dark that frame the imagery—but I’m unable to determine whether the texture is a product of the paper, or the process.
the texture you see is platinum. it is the process drawing you in to a physical experience. i don’t say this to be facetious, more so to reference the fact that platinum prints appear three dimensional when compared to other photographic process (anaglyphs notwithstanding). in essence the physical work of a platinum print is painterly—it is applied as a wash, really—since every print is hand coated one at a time using a brush. the pure dark areas you refer to are the ones i’m most concerned with, the negative space that defines each image and challenges viewers perception. both the paper and the process are idiosyncratic from a maker’s standpoint… they are victim to heat, humidity, age, and a half dozen other things that would plague the average photographer/printmaker. what i’m left with, and what you see, is a unique print that holds its own surface quality, which is, of course, part of the image itself.
Related to the previous question—the work in the SDMA show exhibits significant variation in the visual homogeneity of the dark skies that frame your landscapes. For me this is where the complexity set in, as I realized the texture of the sky was potentially due not just to paper or process, but to the very source imagery itself: the low lumpiness of a coastal marine layer, or the silken purity of a desert night sky. And yet some of your desert images appear to have low clouds overhead! Why?
simply put, they might. but what you’re responding to is an edge i’m consciously working with every time i exhibit the work. viewers bring their own connection to visual art, this much is a given. by taking the medium to its physical and literal limit (printing pure black), the work takes on its own physical life, responding to light as much as anything else. it’s a wonderful oxymoron, though it can be a bit vexing for my work as an artist, i’ll admit. to create a tally of our conversation, we’re up to one nuanced photographic process, an artist exploring the limits of that process, the state of the physical environment the work was made in, the lighting the prints are shown under, and the viewers own capacity to look carefully. the latter being one of my primary motivations… to have people engage with the work as a physical object.
The source imagery in your night work seems lit entirely by dusk or human light. Since you’ve worked in the desert, you know moonlight. Can you use it? Or is there some formal reason why it doesn’t appear in your work?
photographers can use moonlight with great success, but for me it’s something of a gimmick. when i was a kid our neighbor had one of those framed posters with a black and white image in it. the image showed boats on the chesapeake bay by moonlight, but it was clearly a daytime shot made to look like the night. it was obvious to me then, but is a good analogy to your question. if you accept the fact moonlight tells us about a world we already know (one that kind of looks like the day but with deeper shadows, less color, and a little more mystery) then i’m not much interested in it. i’m most interested in looking at what we can’t see and what we choose to not look at, then figuring out a way to make others take note. while i’ve worked a lot in the desert at night, it is more often than not that human light defines each image, and increasingly images made in urban environments. it is this intersection that has, above all else, defined my work. working at night—moonlight or otherwise—was a starting place to expand a view of vernacular landscapes and in the process engage with the act of looking.
The typical lighting in a museum or gallery seems antithetical to what you’re trying to achieve—when this work gets exhibited, do you specify any nonstandard lighting requirements?
not really. i’ve found there’s a magic light level that makes the work pop, probably around 7 foot-candles. too much light kills the experience of negative space, too little light doesn’t allow the prints to glow as they should.
Edison to Kodachrome to Vegas: bright light is deeply embedded in the American psyche. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that the foremost apostles of darkness are a Japanese writer (Junichiro Tanizaki) and a Hungarian film director (Bela Tarr). Have either of them influenced your work in any way? Do you have an affinity for theirs?
i’ve only scratched the surface of each artist, and i’ll be honest in saying they haven’t influenced me directly… which isn’t to say they’re not vastly influential! it may appear a strange practice from the outside but i often work in a kind of artistic celibacy. early in my career i found i was drawn to emulate the work of other artists i admired, consciously or unconsciously. once i tapped into a language that felt like my own it freed me in a way, and allowed me to focus more on the work itself and less looking for inspiration from beyond. it was a bit like sand through an hourglass… as i concentrated more and more on what i was doing it eventually opened an entirely new world for me. today, when i look at the work of bela tarr, joan didion, eric orr (the list could go on) it’s an enriching experience to ‘see’ and engage with other, wonderful dialogs i was never aware of.
Any last words?
turn off the computer. there’s a big world to discover.