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Interview: John Chervinsky - An Experiment in Perspective

photo-eye Bookstore + Project Space Interview: John Chervinsky - An Experiment in Perspective photo-eye Bookstore + Project Space is pleased to announce an exhibition of photographs by John Chervinsky entitled An Experiment in Perspective opening Friday, February 20th, from 5-7pm. Chervinsky talked to photo-eye's Melanie McWhorter about the series, the prints and the creation of the limited edition.

Abstract Implosionism, 2007 - John Chervinsky

photo-eye is excited to announce that our next exhibition in photo-eye Bookstore + Project Space, John Chervinsky's An Experiment in Perspective, opens Friday, February 20th from 5-7. This series of black and white table-top still-lifes challenge our spatial awareness by layering three-dimensional objects with chalk drawings, creating compelling scenes of baffling dimensionality and perspective. An engineer working in the field of applied physics, Chervinsky's photographs incorporate object symbolic of his personal life, objects that reflect our idea of perception and time and chalkboard drawings that relate to the science of simple machines up to the highly complex scientific concepts.

The exhibition also celebrates the publication of Chervinsky's handmade limited edition of the series, produced during his stay at the prestigious Light Work residency program in Syracuse, NY. Limited to 15 hand assembled, sewn and bound copies with two artist proofs, the exquisitely produced volume contains 32 black and white and 2 color images and an essay by Leslie K. Brown. Each is signed and numbered.

Chervinsky talked to photo-eye's Melanie McWhorter about the series, the prints and the creation of the limited edition.


The Hand of Man - John Chervinsky
Melanie McWhorter:     The work that we are showing at photo-eye this spring is a selection of your black & white photographs from An Experiment in Perspective. Would you briefly tell how you constructed these pieces and generally why you chose the objects that you did to create this specific project?

John Chervinsky:     All of the images in this series were shot with a vertical and horizontal chalkboard serving as a backdrop and foreground, respectively. I draw chalk lines in forced perspective onto both surfaces. I choose objects that not only have symbolic meaning by themselves, but that they hopefully work with the chalk markings and titles, to steer the viewer into particular areas of thought. Many of the objects are discarded lab items, vintage photographs (both found and personal) and objects that I borrowed from Harvard’s physics demonstration laboratory.

MM:     Among a few other themes, your work is anchored in the concept of time on a grand scale. Do you feel that after completing both projects your notion and perception of time has changed? If so, how?

JC:     I only wish I could change my perception of time — sadly, there is never enough of it. However, the project has had an impact in a way that's difficult to explain. I guess you could say that I draw some comfort in comparing time on the grand to that of the human scale. It's as if the finality of my own life is not such a huge deal, if I define it on those terms. I don't think I ever considered the idea of an eternal life after death very plausible. However, the notion of it is a lot less terrifying, if one considers our own insignificance on those grand scales of space and time. It's not to say that I have any certainty in the matter, but I feel pretty confident that our great mysteries in life are anchored squarely within the realm of nature.

The Key, 2009 - John Chervinsky
MM:     For me, your prints are reminiscent of charcoal drawings. They are velvety and lusciously black and although very scientific, they have emotional content that may not engage the viewer as effectively if not for your adept shooting and printing skills. Would you speak a bit about the process of shooting and printing that creates such an attractive print?

JC:     Thanks for that. It's really an issue of taking care of the basics: choosing good materials, properly exposing negatives, and scanning and printing for maximum impact. I did spend a great deal of time finding a paper and ink combination that produces deep blacks and made sure that, particularly the shadow end of the tonal scale, was accurately calibrated with a reliable densitometer. A chalkboard contains so much wonderful tonality and I did my best to capture it.

MM:     The exhibitions in photo-eye Bookstore + Project Space are always associated with a book. For your show, we have your new limited edition An Experiment in Perspective. You started this project as part of an Artist-in-Residence program at Light Work in Syracuse, NY. Light Work is an organization that has granted this wonderful opportunity to many photographers. What was your experience like there and how did you decide what you would focus on while there?

An Experiment in Perspective. Limited Edition book from John Chervinsky.

JC:     I had originally intended to work on my book and make some images in my Studio Physics series, but once I realized how much work the book involved, I decided to focus exclusively on it.

It’s really a very special place. What makes them unique, even amongst all of our wonderful nonprofit photo organizations, is how much they do. The residency is but one of their programs. They also feature activities including local classes and lectures, darkroom and studio use for local photographers and they have a very active and professionally staffed digital laboratory. Let's not forget too about all the wonderful publications they release. There is an almost absurd amount of activity there that extends into late nights and weekends. Everyone there works very hard.

MM:     The decisions that are involved with making a limited edition can create a daunting process for photographers. How did you make the decisions about your limited edition? Materials? Plates? Production?

JC:     I was underwhelmed by the quality of books I was seeing made through places like Blurb. The photographer’s designs and images were fine but the print quality and binding left me unsatisfied. So I challenged myself to see if I could produce an on-demand handmade book.

I should mention that when I began, I knew nothing about producing a book. The very first thing I did was to enlist Leslie K. Brown to write the introduction, she is not only a very talented writer, but she knows and understands my work, very well.

I started off the actual process with having a local friend spend some time teaching me how to use InDesign and got up to speed with it. I found a great double-sided paper, Canson Rag Photographique. It really expressed the dark tonality of the images that I mention above.

An Experiment in Perspective. Limited Edition book from John Chervinsky.

Once I arrived at Light Work, I spent some time just looking at photobooks; paying close attention to details involving text design and layout, typeface choices, and the pacing and sequence of images. Once I made a rough design of the text pages, Jeff Hoone connected me with Marty Blake, a very talented designer that lives in Syracuse. She has a great eye and a vast amount of experience that goes back to the days of typesetting, yet she possesses a complete mastery of the current technology. She was able to identify and help me solve many issues that I had not even considered. I was very lucky to be able to work with her.

John Chervinsky and Nathan Lyons                            photo: Hannah Frieser
The next step in the process and the one that I felt the least confident about was image sequencing — and that's what led me to one of the high points of my stay. Hannah Frieser arranged a meeting with the great Nathan Lyons. We drove out to Rochester and we sat around and looked at my work. He was able to explain some of the many issues I should consider in my arrangement and actually worked me though a potential sequence right there on his dining room table. He then showed me his latest book project and explained to me why he made the sequencing choices that he did. I was a tremendous learning opportunity for me, and an experience that I will never forget.

Shane Lavalette was able to really critique the overall design in a very constructive way. We share some minimalistic tendencies and that allowed me to further refine it and remove some of the distracting elements that cropped up in my original work.

Once I returned home, I made contact with the North Bennet Street School. They are world renown as an educational institution in the traditional trades and fine craftsmanship. They've been around for 125 years and have an excellent bookbinding program. Jeff Altepeter, head of the bookbinding department was able to enlist the help of two of his students, Josh Crotty and Kevin Sheby. They are the ones that took my cover design and stack of double-sided prints to produce the book that you have in your store. I felt that they did outstanding work and I recommend them to anyone considering such an undertaking.

Photograph of a Painting of a Photograph of a
Wife of a Cotton Sharecropper in 1936 -
 John Chervinsky
MM:     In the last photo-eye interview with Sarah Bradley you finish with “My overreaching ambition is to eventually take principles relating to time and space expressed in the history of art, but get people to think of timescales that extend beyond a single human life and extend that, to the age of humanity, the age of life, and the age of the universe itself.” Have you considered this idea further in the last three years? How has it evolved for ideas about future projects?

JC:     My latest Studio Physics images start to scratch the surface. In them, I use well-known works of art that refer to a precise moment in time. Through the use of photographs of pixelated styled paintings from China, I try to step the viewer forward at each layer of representation. They have titles like A Photograph of a Painting of a Photograph of a Wife of a Cotton Sharecropper in 1936. In this context, I wish to draw attention to the frame within the photograph as well as the frame of the photograph and how that relates to the physical world beyond that. If possible, some of the future pieces will be made in an actual museum setting. The use of pixilation refers to the digitized interface that most of us use currently to experience our version of reality. Obviously, I have still have a long way to go to satisfy my overreaching ambition, but I try to challenge myself to the point, that the chance of failure, is very high.

The Gravity of Mars, 2005John Chervinsky
John Chervinky's An Experiment in Perspective opens Friday, February 20th from 5 – 7pm
at photo-eye BOOKSTORE + PROJECT SPACE, 376 Garcia Street Suite A, Santa Fe

View the An Experiment in Perspective portfolio
View the An Experiment in Perspective Limited Edition book

For more information, or to arrange an interview, please contact Anne Kelly: 505.988.5152 x121 or