FEATURED MEMBER – Caleb Charland

Posted on January 2, 2011




Caleb Charland is an experimental photographer who captures everyday physical phenomena, that most people never think about, in a unique and inspiring way.

Growing up in rural Maine, Caleb spent his childhood in a Do-It-Yourself-oriented household where his father would constantly ask for his help in remodelling the house. These experiences raised an awareness on Caleb´s part of the potential for creative use of materials, and the ability to fabricate his vision.

Caleb obtained a Bachelor of Fine Art degree in photography with departmental honours from the Massachusetts College of Arts and Design in 2004 and a Master of Fine Art degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago as a Trustees Fellow in 2010.

In his work Caleb has the curiosity of a scientist, wondering how natural forces can best be represented by particular photographic techniques. His works originate in a questioning of how things work and how a certain process of events will manifest itself visually. It is usually the unforeseen that ends up providing the most interesting part of the image.

For Caleb, each photograph begins with a simple question: “How would this look?” “Is that possible?” “What would happen if..?” and he develops it through a sculptural process of experimentation. Each image is therefore a field for a potentially fascinating visual puzzle.

All of his images are created in-camera without digital manipulation
The innovation of his photography comes from the use of everyday objects that he finds around his domestic space such as matches, mirrors and different lights, to elaborate upon more exotic experiences.

Caleb is always uncertain of how the shoots will finally appear, as his ideas are mostly provoked by an uncertain curiosity about the world, how things work and wondering what a certain process will lead to visually. Sometimes it work, sometimes not, but he keeps on trying, keeps on shooting, because he believes that knowing exactly how a picture will come out is too boring.

His last project, called “BioGraphs”, is based around a discovery that he made whilst removing the silver from the film to make images of bacterial growth. As with many other ventures, it wasn’t successful because some silvers remained on the film, however Caleb was amazed to see that the bacteria was growing in patterns that were redepositing the image particles, their life cycles imprinted in silver.

Caleb went on creating solid fields of colour on the film, which he then coated with Agar, a nutrient source and a base where the bacteria could grow. Slowly the bacteria would eat the Agar, and then go on to consume the film emulsion.

Q.  Caleb, you are widely known for your scientific photography. Where does your interest in this discipline come from?
A.  I’ve always understood science as a way to study, explore, and understand the world. Both art and science are about being curious and inquisitive. Ever since I was a kid watching and helping my dad work on the house, seeing him transform simple materials into a home, I’ve been curious about how things work. As I got older I realized I could find my own way to study the world around me and make those observation into interesting pictures. The work I’m inspired to make satisfies a desire to reinterpret information gained from observing the world and a desire to build.

I think the drive to incorporate simple science into my pictures came in 2005 when I was taking classes in math and science at a community college. I was 25 then and thought that I might go into the medical imaging field, I thought that I could support my art habit by working as an x-ray tech. Part of that training required courses in math and science. One day in class I thought about looking through some children’s books of science experiments for ideas. I knew that I couldn’t just follow the directions line by line and end up with art. However I was getting back to a place where the world seemed honestly fascinating. No one person owns the rights to basic science, its everyone’s and it remains a fascinating well of curiosity and discovery.

Q.  To what extent do you try to understand the science behind the things you are photographing?
A.  Enough to make the image well informed. The science is often a matter of fact, literally. The real challenge and the aspect I focus on most is the context of the phenomena. By using drills and matches for example I think it gives people a way into the work. By using objects that are well understood, people seem to relate to what I’ve found and offer in the picture.

Q.  How do you go about finding your subjects?
A.  It’s hard to say exactly where an idea comes from, sometimes they appear out of nowhere. I used to look to science books as well as Google for ideas on classic experiments for weekend scientists, and I still do from time to time. I think my favourite ideas come from direct observation, for example my image “Ten Seconds in Oil and Water” came to me while doing the dishes one night, I noticed water dripping into a pan of cooking oil. Usually we see oil on top of water, but in this case the fluids were reversed. The water fell into the pan and formed perfect little spheres of liquid within another liquid. The hard part was then expanding the idea into a full frame image, but that’s the most enjoyable facet of my process, getting something to work.

Q.  How do you set up your photos?
A.  I do everything myself and its different for every picture. Often the set up is informed by the experimental process, I try to incorporate as much of the device or the event as I can. I want the image to be a question and the title a clue to the solution.
You’ll notice in a lot of the images the environment is controlled, for example using a grey background helps isolate the object/event before the camera so there aren’t any distractions or unintended visual collisions in the frame. Though recently I’m trying to make work in the landscape and hope to find more collisions and uncontrollable events.

Images can take anywhere from 5 minutes to 5 weeks or longer to get right. Or if something isn’t working the way I’d hoped I have to put the idea down for a while, probably until I wise up and realize I was pushing it in a direction it didn’t want to go in and often the object and the phenomena know how to make better pictures than I do. I think the key is finding that harmony between how the idea wants to be seen and how I intend to show it.

Q.  Can you take us through your photographic process? And what equipment do you normally use for your photography?
A.  My studio has a “junkyard” aesthetic. Nothing is that precious besides the lens and the one portable studio flash I have. I shoot with a 4×5 inch monorail view camera, usually a 90mm or a 135mm lens. I use one table for a lot of the images, its long and and not very wide which I’ve found to be helpful when photographing objects…since the table doesn’t extend that far back it takes up less of the frame. This allows an object to feel more prominent in the image.

I use simple metal clamp lights attached to wooden stands I made out of scrap wood from my dad’s garage. It’s not what you have but what you do with it I guess (I hope).

Q.  Your work seems to be quite a challenge. Are you a perfectionist?
A.  Not a perfectionist, perhaps a Just-enough-ist. I think if and when one is being too much of a perfectionist they develop tunnel vision and tend to miss an unexpected occurrence. However I do want things to work a certain way and I’ll spend hours and hours getting it right. Art has taught me to accept and be comfortable with failure. 70 or 80% of the time things don’t work, but it’s in no way wasted time, that’s the time you learn the most I think. People can tell you they like something a hundred times but you only listen to the one negative comment, it’s the only way to get better.

Q.  Which photographers and artists inspire you?
A.  Tom Friedman, Abelardo Morell, Zeke berman, William Lamson, Joseph Cornell, Cezanne, Werner Herzog, E.J.Marey, Jacques Henri Lartigue, Sugimoto, Terry Gilliam, Olafur Eliasson, Adam Ekberg, Ben Franklin…

Q.  What are your ambitions and projects for 2011?
A.  I would like to make a book available. To remember simpler is better. To work on a bigger scale out in the environment. Read more. Have fun and to stay curious.

Q.  What would you like to gain from your involvement with Pelime?
A.  To get on more radar screens and to be involved in a group of creatively diverse do-ers and thinkers.

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