In March and April of last year I published two articles on 35mmc detailing my experiments in double-exposures. For a while now I’ve been meaning to come back and tell more about what this has led to, but could never find the time.
Now is the time. This week I’m releasing a zine of the first generation of images of what has become the Photosynthesis Project, which I feel is my first proper photography project ever. Previously, I would build collections of images as opportunity arose and I would maybe think of them as projects in my mind, but they weren’t really.
Photosynthesis stems from something deeper, something that matters to me. After close to 8 years living in Shanghai and later Hong-Kong, it became evident to me that we as a species have distanced ourselves from nature to a point where instinctively we no longer believe or understand that we are part of it. This is of course not specific to Asia, but is perhaps exacerbated – particularly in Shanghai – by the sheer scale of the urban environment.
And so in Photosynthesis, I blend humans and plant textures through the medium of in-camera double-exposures to try and express the beauty of our belonging to nature. I also hope, perhaps immodestly, that seeing these images triggers in some viewers a sense that our being part of nature (and therefore nature itself) should be cherished and protected.
I’ve trodden a lot of ground since the last article I published nearly 18 months ago. The biggest element, perhaps, is that the primary output of the project are large cyanotype prints. Cyanotype became self-evident once I printed the first images: the connection with the legacy of Anna Atkins was obvious, and the slightly surreal, dreamlike quality of cyanotypes fit the subject matter wonderfully. That’s when the name Photosynthesis imposed itself on me.
In April this year, the fantastic Michele Galeoto and I collaborated on a short 4 minute movie to present the project to the world. I could not have been more pleased with the final result: not only is it beautiful, but it encapsulates in a very short time the key things that matter to me in this project.
From a creative perspective, Photosynthesis allowed me to explore and grow in essentially three directions: the portraiture work, the choice and use of textures and the double exposures.
When it comes to double exposures, I have definitely learned a lot. It feels to me that this is an area a lot of film photographers have dabbled in, but not one many have explored systematically. This makes it hard work, but also super exciting. Understanding what may happen during each exposure and how to use that creatively has been such a thrill.
On the texture side, it has also been a wild learning curve. Just because a leaf looks beautiful or a tree gnarly doesn’t mean they will work well when blended onto a human figure. Figuring out not only which textures work, but how they should be exposed, and how the portrait that will be superimposed will then have to be exposed has meant a lot of trial and error, but I feel I’m getting the hang of it now.
But I feel it’s on the portrait side I still have the most to learn. Shooting so many models has taught me a lot about how to run a session, how to instill confidence in your models, how to respect their work and their time. It has also, in a deeper sense, opened my eyes on a lot of issues around body image. One of the things that I find magical about the successful Photosynthesis portraits is that they create enough distance between the models and the image that often they will like the image even if they don’t like their own body image. And yet I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of the science of lighting and the endless possibilities of framing and composition when it comes to models.
Still, I’ve come a long way, and it made sense to me to put together this first catalog of images as a milestone. These are mostly images from the project’s inception in mid-2019 to the end of 2020. I love all of these images even if they are different in many ways to the one’s I’m producing now.
It’s also a landmark because I can feel myself going in multiple directions from here. Not only am I continuing my explorations with new models and new approaches, I’m also thinking about producing similar images in 4×5, exploring with different types of textures (I’m going to a boat cemetery in a few weeks to shoot mechanical parts and engine parts to try double exposures with) and more generally making double exposure a medium. When I look at the works of David Allen or Chris Relander, it’s obvious to me that there is so much more to double exposure than what has been seen or done so far.
Obviously, there’s a commercial intent that grows as well. I had my first taste of exhibition, a few sales, and it would be so nice for this work to at least support itself financially, if not actually make some money. But that’s a whole other avenue of investigation and work, one I intend to tackle in 2022. I’m sure there will be more discoveries, more happy surprises amidst the hard slog and frustrations, and I will be sure to come here and share them when I have enough new stories to tell!
If you’re interested in the zine, you can get it on my Etsy store. For prints, collaborations or any other questions, you can post in the comments here or ping me on Instagram @benfelten.