Blake Lewis: Discovering new ways of transforming light in the dark room

Posted on May 14, 2016

FF

So let’s start with the obvious question: when did you discover you could do such visually stunning photographic works…without actually using a camera?

BL

It happened while on my MA, I knew that I wanted to work with analogue photography, and was already familiar with photograms, a technique which goes back to the very early days of photography. I was thinking about the light source and found that using the enlargers’ light source was restricting, being fixed. I thought ‘what would happen if the light source was movable, what if it could be variable – in both light intensity, position and distance from the paper. The first works in this vein were the series 115 to 117. When I saw those oranges and reds I knew I was onto something so I just kept pushing it.

Blake Lewis featured in the FotoFoam catalog

Blake Lewis featured in the FotoFoam catalog

FF

One of the things that stands out in your works is the smooth and gradual transition between colors. It has an almost calming effect. Can you talk about how the analog process is able to produce such vibrant color spectrums and transitions between colors?

BL

I think because of its nature, any analogue process has a ‘hands on’ element that allows room for variations that may not be so readily available in digital processes. I use a lot of filters in my work, that are handmade from various materials and applied manually. Transitions can be enhanced or heightened or stretched out purely by familiarity with the process, determined through experience within that discipline. Using light sensitized paper involves actual chemical reactions to light so it is a real reaction happening not mimicry. The thing about photographic paper is that it records faithfully whatever color light you apply to it, its qualities aren’t defined by combinations of inks.

FF

It’s clear from the variety in your series that experimentation plays a major role in your process. Do you force yourself to have “experiment” days, or is the evolution from series to series more “accidental”? Perhaps somewhere in between?

BL

Experimentation always seems to be there, no matter what I do, it’s like a permanent way of thinking almost. So, no I don’t feel the need to force myself to work in that way, it’s more that the resulting imagery comes from a questioning of what are accepted and tried techniques of image production. The evolution you mention comes from working on separate, yet linked projects at the same time. I really love it when I try something and get utterly unexpected results, or thinking it will end up like this, but then something else happens. As its all done in an analogue darkroom, and working with color there are no safelights to work by, in the total darkness it all seems quite magical. It is somewhere in between, like  you say but that in between is usually a very wide and very deep!

Works by Blake Lewis in the artists dark room

Works by Blake Lewis in his dark room

FF

For your Lightscape series featured on FotoFoam, there is a major element of light intensity. This includes both deep blacks and blown out whites. This burn gives the viewer a true sense of “pure analog” photography. It’s almost as if the monumental shift that the world has taken towards digital is resulting in a void of experimentation in the analog photography world. How do you reconcile the existential question of analog versus digital?

BL

I think that’s an interesting question, I’m not at all sure there is any real competition between the two. They both have their merits, and I am by no means a purist in either direction. I feel very comfortable working with both, I think it’s important to work with both. Some of my work couldn’t be done without a digital element. I am fascinated by what the surface of the photographic paper holds at a deeper, magnified level. The series Lightscape is all about looking deeper into what analogue photography is, without talking about chemical reactions or necessarily photographing the real world. By exploring what photography isn’t designed to do – in this case, using a roll of photographic paper as one piece, you emphasize what it is.  

But why does it have to be one or the other? We have two truly amazing and dynamic ways of working, why not combine the two and see what happens?

What I love about analogue is that you are actually creating and making something that is tactile, that you can handle, that can break or tear. An actual thing that has a presence in the world. I think that’s a valuable thing.

An installation of 258a by Blake Lewis in NYC

An installation of 258a by Blake Lewis in NYC

FF

Some great artists have discovered inspiration by living in places far from their original homes. Leaving home can create a certain “discomfort” that is supportive of the creative process. Being an Australian living in the UK do you ever find this to be true for you while creating your work?

BL

Definitely. I think being out of your comfort zone allows you to be yourself more, that ‘discomfort’ kind of places a sense of who you are to the fore, also it gives you a clear perspective, or way of relating to where you come from and to other people.

The quality of light in the UK is completely different to that of Australia. That’s probably one reason why I prefer stronger, brighter colors to more subdued tones. I definitely miss that quality of light, among other things. There is a tradition of Australians coming to the UK, and I like the idea that I’m part of that, although it had more to do with the cultural connections between Australia and England, which aren’t really relevant anymore. Its an interesting place to be for sure, but as long as I have access to a darkroom it doesn’t really matter where I am. I do prefer the beach though.

FF

Switching gears a little, I get the sense that you’re a vinyl record type of guy. Would you say your love for analog extends into music or does digital streaming do sound justice for you?

BL

You’re right, I love vinyl records. I used to collect lots of records and sit and listen to them for hours while studying the album covers. The sound of the needle on the record, that hiss and hum is beautiful. Music definitely plays a huge role in my life everyday. These days digital is fine though. It’s the old digital versus analogue argument. Does it really matter? Whatever sounds come out – as long you like it and want to dance to it, what does it matter what medium comes in? And as long as it does something for you, inspires you, motivates you, gets you moving or puts a smile on your face.  

S240a by Blake Lewis

S240a by Blake Lewis

FF

There are many color families in your work and they have an ethereal connection between them – almost a retro overlay that gives all these colors a common aesthetic. How do you think about this overarching aesthetic in the work?

BL

These colors come about through the use of specific filters that I use, some actually work in the opposite way to transparent gels. They tend to block out particular parts of the spectrum. It took a while to get my head around that actually. From there it was a matter of experimentation and welcome accidents. I would try to create a blue-green but end up with something else entirely. However, it’s come to a point now where the minor subtleties and nuances can be planned out before hand. There will always be room for things to change in the process of making a print, which is good, which is also a purely analogue thing too, but I have become more adept at it. I’m really looking forward to getting into the darkroom again and continue to build on more color combinations.

FF

Your works on FotoFoam range in size from 30″x20″ (75cm x 50cm) to 40″x40″ (100cm x 100cm). What do you see as the optimal size when going to print your work?

BL

This is hugely variable thing for me, it depends on what the work is and the best way to display it. As my work has evolved the prints have become larger. I like the idea that you can be quite close to a print and be encompassed by it, almost entirely taking up your peripheral vision. Larger sized prints allow the finer details to be more evident. These fine details where the light has been bent and transformed – that’s what I want to see. I’d like to make even larger pieces. I also like the idea of not being constrained by predetermined paper sizes.

258a by Blake Lewis in production at FotoFoam

258a by Blake Lewis in production at FotoFoam

FF

You’ve recently finished up work on a new series – Depth – which incorporates a level of texture. Do you see texture becoming a more integral part of your process going forward, on the same level as color? What other tactile elements can we expect to see in the future?

BL

Yeah, that series was a real breakthrough for me actually. I’ve been working in two different ways to explore the materiality of the print, of photographic paper. We see paper as mainly two dimensions yet it is a three dimensional object, but due to the scale of it we cannot see much of it. The textures in that series brings that three dimensionality out, magnifies it to a point where you’re not sure exactly what you’re looking at. Which kind of mirrors the other work. I’d like to experiment with ways of displaying work, addressing the materiality of photographs, what from that will take we’ll just have to wait and see.

New work from Depth series by Blake Lewis

New work from Depth series by Blake Lewis

FF

We’re looking forward to it.

See more work by Blake Lewis at his FotoFoam gallery here.