As the art world continues to find itself in a reactionary state, responding to and steadily keeping up with new methods of creation, certain visionary artists, like British photographer Damion Berger, conceptually tackle this tension by merging long established techniques with the new tools of today. Though the increasing reliance on technology is forcing audiences into a new conceptual arena where post Internet art, immersive installation, and experience is key, there is something exciting, fresh, even avant-garde about seeing artists produce works that return to art making’s nascent form.
Often contingent on technological advancements, the photographic medium and process epitomizes the amalgamation of old and new techniques. Yet, as the digital photograph becomes more prominent the sense of photography’s underlying alchemy has begun to give way to the inevitable emergence of a machined perfection. Conceptual photographer Damion Berger inverts the concept of the photographic moment to return to photography’s basic essentials, to explore the imprint of light and its ability to depict notions of time and reveal the invisible nature of movement within a single image.
Innately analogue in practice, Berger employs photography as a mark-making medium – using a large format camera and sheet film, he experiments with focus and aperture, long-exposure and re-exposure, along with an array of in-camera techniques. light itself becomes Berger’s paintbrush and the now outmoded photographic negative is used against its intended purpose as his definitive canvas. Photographed almost exclusively at night, his inverted images describe tonality and detail in a way that evoke certain kinds of charcoal and ink drawing and cliche verre. Presenting the work as large-format facsimiles of exposed film, face-mounted to plexiglass in reference to glass-plate negatives, Berger alludes to the negative as an artistic and technological object that questions the evolution of the medium and underscores the inherent dialogue between photography and drawing.
Balancing precision camera-craft often with energetic focus and shutter movements, his images are, like his process, simultaneously vibrant, frenetic, and calm. Ritualistic in many ways, Berger’s method eschews the gestural clichés inherent in his choice of subject matter which focuses on and questions modes of celebration and grandeur. Highlighting the seductive and sometimes unsettling nature of ceremony and spectacle, whether he is capturing grand celebrations memorialized with firework displays as in Black Powder, historical traditions of warlike reenactments as in Rouketopolemos, or the elliptical drift of mega-yachts at anchor as in Vessels, Berger continuously reconsiders the idea of the spectacle in relationship to history, architecture, conflict and the conspicuous consumption of our time.
Process oriented, conceptually charged, and object-based, Berger places equal weight on not only the conceptual provocation that drives the art but also the process by which his ideas may be achieved. This interdependent relationship is vital to Damion Berger’s practice. Abstract, geometric, even scientific, Berger’s most recent series entitled Black Powder and Vessels harnesses precision and chance to the way in which man-made objects re-contextualize and alter our landscape. From fireworks in the sky or mega-yachts on the water, Berger’s images portray the dichotomy between the synthetic and natural world. Though these magnificent spectacles are manufactured, and the photographic imprint they trace are remnants of artificial light, these objects are still subject to nature’s primordial force. It is in fact earth’s ancient elements – the ebb and flow of water, wind and air that formulate Berger’s dynamic patterns, molecular marks, and otherworldly compositions.
Mirroring the physicality of the artist’s technical process, Black Powder is a series of disarming, excited, and quite literally explosive images that take on a life of their own. Some more abstract than others, the swirling and fluid trajectories, pentagonshaped patterns, and fairy dust-like sprinkles create mystical and transcendental images that portray a certain balance between organic and artificial motion. Involved in setting the frame, employing rapid and aggressive shutter release, exposing and often re-exposing the negative, Berger’s corporeal energy is very much at play in the images’ creation yet, at the same time, Berger must fully accept nature’s uncertainty to sculpt these contrasting and feverish works. Often examining aesthetic and symbolic contrast within the photograph, for instance in Redentore, Santa Maria della Salute, Venice, a sky hauntingly etched in fireworks that celebrate the annual Festa del Redentore (Feast of the Redeemer) is juxtaposed with the iconic basilica, built as an offering to God for deliverance from the plague. It is images like these in which Berger continues to clearly question the essence of the spectacular in regards to history.
Calmer, yet equally itinerant, Berger’s more recent series entitled Vessels depicts a group of meditative and mesmerizing seascapes. Architectural, geometric and even ghostly in style, Vessels sinuously plots the slow and gentle orbit of a mega-yacht, sail boat, or cruise ship around its anchor. Tranquil in creation – quite literally framing the horizon, triggering the shutter and leaving the camera to record the slow dance between ship and sea, Berger creates images that map the passage of time and movement over the course of the night. Filmic in nature, paranormal in appearance, UFO-like, these unidentified floating objects are invaders of the sea. Vessels in the naval sense, their fantastical forms also evoke an organism-like aura as a vessel or container of life. The otherworldly objects and etch-a-sketch style dots and lines create a discourse similar to that of Morse code – constructing a binary communication system between the natural and unnatural. Visually blurring the line between manufactured and organic, Berger relinquishes his technical and creative control to the natural elements, which shape and construct these quite literal yet ethereal images.
It is within his velvety blacks, cloudy grays, and electric whites that Berger transports us into a telescopic vantage point, depicting contrast to symbolize the delicate interplay between the modern and physical world. Through representations of monumental pyrotechnic displays and mega-yachts, Berger’s unaltered and unconventional photographs present a set of visual dichotomies that border on the sublime. Like many significant artists, Berger’s photographs pose more questions than they answer, yet ultimately they on the nature of time itself and the alchemy of light and movement to reveal the invisible .