AMY J. BARRY, Special to the Day
Denny Moers' photographic monoprints start out with subjects as diverse as New England architecture, ancient Egyptian tomb reliefs, medieval wall frescoes, contemporary construction sites and western desertscapes. The artistry and alchemy continues in the darkroom, where Moers brings forth unexpected, even colorful, surprises from his black-and-white images.
Moers uses a unique developing process that controls the action of light on chemical-sensitized photographic paper. A body of the Rhode Island photographer's water-themed monoprints are on exhibit together for the first time in a show titled "Near Water's Edge" at New London's Custom House Maritime Museum. The works investigate the various manifestations of water in dams, rivers, lakes and flooded fields.
Moers earned his MFA from the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, N.Y. He received a Rhode Island Pell Award for Excellence in the Arts in 2003 and the Rhode Island Council on the Arts Fellowship in Photography for 2012. His monoprints are included in more than 30 public and private collections throughout the world.
We asked Moers about his art and unique photographic process.
Q. In the digital age, what continues to draw you to your method of printing?
A. I've worked in the darkroom, as all older photographers have, until the digital transition. In terms of art making, I've continued to work in the darkroom with traditional materials, as I always have. It's very satisfying, partly because I do like the craft element of working with my hands, and I find that's completely lost in the digital platform, and, because I can't conceive of making art digitally. I do event photography - that's what I shoot digitally. And I teach digital and darkroom (techniques).
Q. How do you continue to grow as an artist?
A. There's a lot of process in my art because it's not seen or experienced as a straight black and white photograph it stems from. The growth mostly comes from growth of ideas, but the process is so second nature to me. It's kind of synonymous to a musician playing guitar or violin (his) whole life doesn't have to move to a different instrument to grow. Sticking in a discipline with the same materials, you're forced to grow by content, not by bells and whistles with technique that the digital Photoshop world excels in. It's all about control with Photoshop. The most important tool is the save tab. To an artist, a painter, that's a joke. Why on earth would you want to press the save tab? Working with my hands on one print at a time allows me to think that way.
Q. How did you discover that the chemicals in developing and printing would permit-as poet Robert Creeley says in his essay about your work-"a curious and emphatic coloring" - as though drawing information from the image itself?"
A. It was accident. I've always treated the darkroom as a place of experimentation. I'm very skeptical of the control that dominates photography. And I have no fundamental interest in that. By experimentation, I've kept open that idea: What if you put this chemical on this piece of photo paper in this order instead of that order? It's pretty far away from a traditional photographer who thinks in terms of control-I balance that at least with 50 percent accident. It's allowed me to see these materials differently and discover color that hadn't been explored before? I'm just applying traditional formulas of toning black and white photography. I'm also applying light in a way that hadn't been used before?the way light is used in the processing.
Q. When did you start taking photos?
A. It's been a form of self-expression since I was a teenager growing up in L.A.-I've never wavered.
Q. When did you come to this area?
A. I've been in Rhode Island since the '70s. I came to work for the renowned photographer Aaron Siskind (in Providence). He invited me to print for him when he was getting older. He was a great person. He also had a strong relationship with painting and abstract expressionist painters - their sensibilities. I grasped that. I understood how he was thinking, working differently than other photographers.
Q. You've stated that music and poetry have been primary influences on your work. Can you explain how?
A. Poetry (gives me) a kind of foundation of understanding, how to think about things?exactly what I've been doing but didn't know how to put into words. A poem is so bare-pen and paper, depends on the same words over and over, the same words we talk with. Photography is kind of the people's language, too. We can all point our cameras at the same things (the way) poets figure out something with those same words.
Music is so important because a darkroom is such a small, enclosed space and I'm passionate about music. I do feel I become influenced by what I'm listening to while I'm printing. I can close the door and blast the music. It fills the rooms and it's like a private arena for music. Chamber music and electric folk music have always been potent for me.
Q. How many photographs are in this show, and how did you choose them?
A. Ten or 12-some are overseas, some in the West, some in New England. They're all connected by water themes and not just natural landscape, but also structures, dams in the water-anything I connected to the movement of water. That's what is going to unify this show.