I worked in the darkroom for over thirty years, most of that time working with the solid black and white of high contrast litho film. By the time the second edition of my book High Contrast was released in the early nineties, I began to run out of ideas. I was shocked. I remembered that while I studied at Rhode Island School of Design, my teacher Harry Callahan would mention the fear of “ running dry”. As a young graduate student I could not imagine it happening to me. There were so many things to photograph, so many ways to print photographs. Over the years I have shot many kinds of subjects, from rock stars to insects. I worked with many printing processes, including silver contact printing, photo etching, five forms of lithography, gum printing and screen-printing. There were some moderate successes along the way, but ten years ago my successful projects were becoming fewer and fewer. As I experimented my way into middle age, I was losing my confidence faster than I was losing my hair. I never did stop working, but I was no longer making prints that anyone else seemed to like.
I have to confess that for a while I was anti-digital. I made a cross out of two strips of Tri X film and hung it over my darkroom door to ward off the digital menace. I vowed that I would never become a mouse pusher. However my wife, Arlene Dubanevich made it a personal mission to push me toward digital imaging. She sat with me as I complained my way through Photoshop 2 program tutorials, which I hated. It wasn’t until I got a flatbed scanner and a good inkjet printer that I suddenly realized that I found the technology I had been looking for since college. This was the perfect way for me to make photographs. My reluctant venture into the world of pixels refreshed my vision and awakened a new aesthetic. These days I am on relatively good terms with my computer “Mr. Dithers” and the aroma of fixer is not drawing me back into the darkroom.
My primary image-making device is an XL flatbed scanner, which to, me is better than any high resolution camera. The scanner has a unique and wonderful way of rendering things that come into its view. The scanner’s myopic vision is fascinating. As the light bar passes over objects it sees them in a very different way than a lens camera. It seems to favor certain types of surfaces, such as metal, glass, and skin. Some subject details are emphasized, while others are rendered only as a soft suggestion of their reality. The result is an image that is simultaneously hyper-realistic and gracefully stylized.
As I pile objects onto the glass they become a part of an inverted still life composition. I immediately begin making full-sized work prints. With the print in hand I return to the scanner and poke things around with a chopstick in an attempt to improve the design. Four or five prints are normally made before I do any substantial work with Photoshop. Some images are simple scans, presented in final form much the way they appeared in that first work print. Other compositions are very complex, involving numerous scans to capture multiple layers of focus, added light, color adjustments, even bits and pieces of older images.
A collector all my life, I have filled two houses, an out building, and a studio with stuff. Many of these things are objects that I have always loved, but was unable to successfully incorporate into previous black and white work. Just recently I used a redwing black bird wing that I’ve kept in a little tin box since I was ten.
My wife of thirty years died tragically around the time of 9/11. Her death was followed immediately by the loss of two other close family members My new work - my manic compulsion to make prints, has kept me from stepping over the edge into a pit of depression. Only now, as I near sixty, have I fully realized the power of photography, the power of art. For me, it had to be a road out of the darkroom and out of the darkness. – J.Seeley
J. Seeley's Bio
J. Seeley is best known for the three editions of his book High Contrast (Focal Press). His work has been published in numerous U.S. and European publications including the Swiss, Camera (cover), Zoom, Graphis, and Photographis Annuals,American Photographer and The New York Times.
Seeley’s images have found a place in many college-level photography texts; several design texts, as well as published collections of images.
Seeley has received two Connecticut Commissions on the Arts grants and collaborated on a third. He is represented in numerous public and private collections including the Museum of Modern Art, the High Museum, International Museum of Photography at the Eastman house, University of Iowa Art Museum, Collection of Colorado State university, The Dayton Art Institute and The Kresgee Collection.
He is a Professor of Art and Chair of The Department of Art and Art History, Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he has taught since 1972.