I/Eye: On Photography

Los Caprichos: Buen viaje!

Posted in Los Caprichos by Sheila Newbery on March 23, 2014
From *Los Caprichos: after Goya*, “Buen viaje!”, platinum palladium print, 2013, by Sheila Newbery

From *Los Caprichos: after Goya*, “Buen viaje!”, platinum palladium print, 2013, by Sheila Newbery

The Caprichos project has been an abiding interest, and recently I started exploring exhibition possibilities — for a collection of, say, 20 prints. This has involved looking into grants, competitions and the like, and as anyone who’s ever done this sort of thing knows, you can spend a lot of money in pursuit of an oasis of opportunity. So you  have to be choosy.  I did see something that caught my eye not long ago, and it meant I had to sum up the project in a few paragraphs — the dread artist’s statement. Here’s what I wrote:

Los Caprichos: after Goya is an artist’s book of 80 platinum-palladium prints, based loosely on Francisco de Goya y Lucientes’ album of the same name from 1799.

I’ve been intrigued by the harrowing eccentricity of Goya’s aquatints since my student days, and in 2011, began to explore using their satirical impetus as a springboard into a photographic project. I was interested in how images from familiar sources could acquire an unexpected, dream-like potency when transformed and re-imagined in a new context, and the idea of composing an extended sequence — one, moreover, with a textual element — was strongly appealing.

My fascination with Goya’s work had to do with the way his cast of characters seem beset by the chaotic energies of a parallel nightmare world. The boundary between the sphere in which people conduct business as usual and the threatening nightmarish one is never terribly clear in the Caprichos; indeed, the implication seems to be that we, the viewer, are situated in both.

To imagine the ordinary as a version of nightmare (and vice versa) became a central concern in the photographs. My subject matter is varied, like Goya’s, and is rooted ostensibly in the social realm, drawn from the ballooning, online repositories of digital video. I photograph stills from moving footage on a computer screen, shooting with a deliberately slow shutter speed. This way I can efface details and trigger tonal distortions, and so distill visual ideas into their graphic essentials. Though the resulting images are distinctly contemporary,  I suspect the dreamer in Goya’s best-known print,  “El sueño de la razón produce monstruos”, would recognize their unsettling phantasmagoria.

Like aquatint, platinum printing — my medium of choice — can convey the velvety depths of an engulfing darkness. I use it because I wanted to let the nocturnal desolation that seemed to lie at the heart of Goya’s prints come flooding into my prints as well.  Platinum has the advantage that it allows me to work directly on paper — that is, without any resin or gelatin substrate, which tends to smooth out appearances.

Goya’s voice in the Caprichos is unmistakable: by turns cryptic, mordant, and darkly funny. He included captions, engraved directly onto the plates, which were printed as part of the image — a device  adopted in making my photographic negatives. In some instances, I’ve preserved his captions verbatim; in others, I’ve written new ones. The legends, and the language, are, in effect, a mask: a way to speak in a transformed voice, one that’s not merely my own.