Lisa Sette Gallery: Black Powder

DAMION BERGER: Newsletter Essay, Fall 2013
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Damion Berger’s Black Powder series documents, in massive and powerfully beautiful representations of glass-plate negatives, the gestural vectors of pyrotechnic explosions launched to memorialize grand celebrations around the world. The British photographer, once an assistant to the renowned fashion photographer Helmut Newton, has chosen fireworks as his subject and captured the celebratory spectacle of worldly events, from the inauguration of earth’s tallest building in Downtown Dubai to art performances in the Jardin du Tuileries.

Dating back to the innovation of gunpowder in 7th century China, as a means of either supplication or banishing evil spirits, says Berger, in our age fireworks have come to reflect the deep civilizational concerns of patriotism, pride, and grand-scale social ritual often deployed to fulfill the voracious demand spurred by the interests of marketing, entertainment, tourism, and the conspicuous consumption of our times.

The clear philosophical import of Berger’s images is eclipsed by their stark, exhilarating beauty. Intense and fractally layered collections of gunpowder sears, tumbling embers, and fiery trajectories are captured and transformed into ashy, crepuscular abstractions that are as confrontational as they are compelling. While some images in the Black Powder series foreground familiar landmarks of civilizational power, like the Tour Eiffel or the Burj Khalifa, others are composed entirely of serial explosions, delineated in stunning lacerations of black and white. Decontextualized, in the absence of sentimental crowds and festive colors, what remains are monumental exposures of finale-like crescendos, a beguiling mix of the the mortal materials of war —guns, bombs and searing chemical blazes, interwoven in a rich latticework that brings to mind botanical gardens and dense tree canopies.

As dramatic as the photographs themselves is Berger’s method of capturing them. Berger uses in-camera techniques such as long and overlapping exposures and unorthodox combinations of focus and aperture to select, sculpt and multiply the explosions onto a single sheet of film. He then offers them back to us as negatives by printing facsimile enlargements of the exposed film. Gaining access to many of the occasions Berger documents can take years of preparation and planning but that is only the beginning, as Berger carries out a process at once determined by his instinctual mastery of his equipment in reaction to the uncontrollable nature of his subject and, at the same time, vulnerable to the variables of mother nature and the unexpected.

“Working with a large format view-camera and setting the focus in advance on the ground glass, I load a single sheet of film at a time. Pulling out the dark slide, and holding the cable-release in one hand, I wait to trip the shutter in sync with selected explosions informed by past trial and error. In-between exposing the same negative multiple times and in quick succession, I sometimes shift the camera in and out of focus, vary the duration of each exposure and open or close the aperture to effect the quality and quantity of light on the film. The more figurative photographs require a supplemental long-exposure after the display to burn in the subtle contextual detail that takes more time to register on film than the bright, vivid explosions. The physical act of making these photographs seems every bit as intense as the fireworks themselves.”

Berger seems to revel the most in those aspects of his medium and subject matter that are unaccountable and uncontrollable; the mysterious confluence of light and time that creates on his negatives moody, sparkling distortions of deep black, or the cherry-blossom hexagons of multiple shutter-openings. “In many of the more abstract images, there are areas that are deliberately out of focus, and sometimes there are these great analogue artifacts sculpted by the mechanics of the lens and shaped by the arrangement of the shutter blades,” he enthuses.

In his use of negatives, his muscular and unexpected take on a common subject of photography, or his ability to coax from the camera lovely and striking effects, Berger’s subject is in part the possibilities of photography as a human-operated tool, and the unique qualities of the analogue medium: “The negative as a delicate and intermediary step in the traditional photographic process, with its inverted tonalities, renders this other-worldly and somewhat magical image… all of this speaks to the analogue process and holds a particular fascination for me,” says Berger.

As photographers like Damion Berger increasingly use the camera to reveal a purer visual poetry than simple reproduction or digital alteration could achieve, it seems there is a distinct place for this technology—the chamber of light—that is as ancient, sacred and vital as those 7th-century explosions in the sky.