Jerry Burchfield – Primal Images


Copyright Jerry Burchfield, 2004 courtesy Laguna Wilderness Press

I am very fascinated by the photographic prints created by Jerry Burchfield (1949 – 2009) for his two recent books, Primal Images: 100 Lumen Prints of the Amazonia Flora,  published in 2004 by Laguna Wilderness Press and subsequently Understory, published this year (2009) also by Laguna Wilderness Press. Burchfield has used a camera-less photographic process that harkens back to the beginning days of photography to create these wonderful images of plants and flora. So to set the stage for his latest book Understory, I need to begin with Burchfield’s earlier book, Primal Images.

Although Burchfield calls his resulting photographs “Lumen” (light) prints, his camera-less process is almost identical to that utilized by William Henry Fox Talbot, a salt print process that Talbot invented in 1841. Talbot called his resulting prints calotypes and this was the first step he made in creating the photographic process that we know today. The calotype, as are Burchfield’s Lumen prints, is a “negative” image created by the shadow of an object on the photo-sensitive medium. When Talbot contact printed his negative salt print to another salt paper he created the first “positive” image.

These camera-less photographic process prints have been given many names, including calotypes, photogenic drawings, photogram, sun prints, contact prints, and numerous others. Regardless, it is amazing that one of the oldest photographic processes in the hands of a photographer, such as Burchfield, still has the capability to provide plenty of artistic potential today.

For Primal Images, Burchfield made three trips to the Amazon River basin to collect plants and other organic samples to create his Lumen prints. In many ways this was a daunting task, because of the conditions to collect and create his Lumen prints on site, and not finish the print processing until his return to Southern California. He was able to “post-visualize” his work in-progress but only at the end of the day after his Lumen printing was completed. If his Lumen print did not turn out has he had hoped, he had to search for another specimen the following morning and start the printing process over again.

To add to the complexity of his process, the results of his photographic process can not be duplicated as each print is an original. Each print is unique due to the quality of light (e.g. if clouds were to occur, which they do, as well as rain and changes in relative humidity), the nature of the sample (organic leaves will shrink and wilt after they have been cut) and what light sensitive material that he had available. For his first trip the printing process must have been a series of trial and error but the immediate visual results must have been amazing.

The resulting lumen prints are the result of a combination of experience, with the printing process and materials under the conditions of the Amazon, with serendipity and chance, as Burchfield could not fully predict the results. Since the prints are but shadows of the specimens, another difficult factor to consider was the amount of translucency of the specimen. Would Burchfield’s specimen block all of the light for his Lumen print and provide just a hard outline of his object? Or would a partial amount of light be transmitted, thus creating a soft shadow? With some experience, I am guessing that Burchfield could anticipate that certain aspects of his printing process might yield a range of effects. Burchfield could control which specimens he selected for his lumen prints and how these specimens were arranged on the light sensitive materials. After that he was at the mercy of the environmental conditions of the day and the interaction of the sunlight, his specimens and how the light sensitive material progressed on that specific day.

Burchfield also varied the size of his prints as a result of the wide range in the size of his specimens, although most were able to encompass an 8 x 10” paper.  But there were specimens, such as the Lemore Rana that spanned a sheet of 11 x 14” paper (third print below), or specimens that required a 16 x 20” sheet of light sensitive paper or even multiple sheets to expand the image size to 33 x 28″, such as when he was working with a giant lily pad.

The resulting lumen prints are wonderful and I can see why he returned again and again to continue this project. Likewise, almost a hundred years earlier, Talbot after all that he had invented for the photographic and printing processes we are in debt for today, had returned back to his calotype prints of plants and flora as his primary expressive photographic process.

Burchfield states that he was surprised by the range of colors that his “black and white” light sensitive materials yielded, as am I. With a black and white enlarging paper I might not expect to have a broad range of color images. The resultant broad range of colors is also a similar effect that Talbot experienced with his salt prints in the mid 1800’s. The resulting colors, patterns, shapes, tonal graduations and lines within each of these prints is very unique and captivating. I understand that the content of his prints is unpredictable, but to Burchfield’s credit, he remains open to the process and the results.

The resulting images do not actually provide very much descriptive details of the plants, foliage or flora and it would be difficult to identify them in their nature habitat. I find that Burchfield’s lumen prints do provide a visual description of the spirit of these plants and hint at their essence. The slight traces of these plants on the prints are almost eerie in their lack of substance and seem like abstract line tracings. As a result I find that most of these lumen prints are just outright magical to look at. The specimens just seem to dance on the surface of the print leaving only an every so light touch of their physical presence behind.

The forward was written by Wade Davis and the introductory essay was provided by Johnathan Green. In the afterword written by Burchfield, he discusses his experience in completing this project, which is a very interesting read. Jerry Burchfield is a co-founder of Laguna Wilderness Press as well as a professor of photography and the director of the photographic gallery at Cypress College, Cypress, California.

Note: This book review was completed shortly before Burchfield passed away at age 62.

Best regards, Douglas Stockdale

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By Douglas Stockdale

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