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Portfolios & Interview: Bob Cornelis – Carta I & II

Portfolios & Interview Bob Cornelis – Carta I & II photo-eye is pleased to announce two new portfolios by photographer Bob Cornelis — Carta I and Carta II. These black and white palladium prints are an intriguing blend of 19th, 20th, and 21st Century photographic practice and philosophy, as Cornelis combines digital capture with palladium salts to build an image.

Carta I, T – Bob Cornelis
photo-eye is pleased to announce two new portfolios by photographer Bob Cornelis — Carta I and Carta II. These black and white palladium prints are an intriguing blend of 19th, 20th, and 21st Century photographic practice and philosophy, as Cornelis combines digital capture with palladium salts to build an image. Focused on form and invested in abstraction, Cornelis depicts paper as both vast and rolling fully tonal environments in Carta I and glowing angular marks that divide the picture plane in Carta II. photo-eye's Lucas Shaffer spoke with Bob Cornelis about getting his start as an artist, his inspirations, and the process of producing the Carta series.

Carta I, A – Bob Cornelis
Lucas Shaffer:     You have a diverse background, including a degree in philosophy as well as a career in management and computer programming. How did you get started making pictures?

Bob Cornelis:     Well, when I was working in the computer industry I found myself sitting in front of a computer screen all day, of course, and I was looking for some alternative entertainment that would primarily get me away from a computer and get me outdoors. I tried a couple of things, and one was a black-and-white darkroom class at UC Berkley. That was over twenty years ago,  so I guess I caught the bug. I started becoming a photographer by learning to shoot film and printing in a darkroom and I really was interested in the whole process, in particular making prints. In some respects I've always viewed myself as more of a printer than just as a photographer — that's lead to various career choices.

LS:     I think that makes sense given the Carta portfolios and their beautiful handmade palladium prints. Is that why you started your printing business?

BC:     I started the business back in 1998, and at that time digital printing was really new, it had
Carta II, A – Bob Cornelis
literally been around for about 5 or 6 years in any form previous to that. There were very few businesses offering digital printing services. I decided I wanted to leave my career as an executive in a big billion dollar company and didn't know what I was going to do, but I ran into a guy named Bill Atkinson who was pretty well known in the digital printing world. He's one of the early forefathers and taught a lot of the people how to do it, but I ran into him and immediately saw that, one: it was inevitable that photography would go this way, it was just so compelling, and two: that there would be opportunity because printing was complicated and people would need help with it. I felt like it was a good combination of my technology background and my artistic interest. For me, the complete expression of an image is in the print; the capture is just one phase in the process of making an art object, and I find that I get frustrated with photographers who feel compelled to stay true or not deviate from the original capture. I feel like they are limiting the means of their art to not allow themselves to experiment in the printing process. One of the few things I refer to in the Ansel Adams world is his quote about how the negative is the score, and the print is the performance.

LS:     I agree, an artist can have a lot to say after the image has been captured.

BC:     Exactly. Why stop there? I know its a loaded issue especially as there are so many concerns about photography, and what it is and what it means. There's a lot of concern about its "reality" — is it just manipulation especially in the digital world. I spent years painting so I have this dual perspective on it. No one goes up to a painter and asks, "Oh, did you manipulate that scene?" Well of course they manipulated it, it's a painting, but if you look at a photographer who's created an image and ask that same question, the photographer can get in trouble for manipulating and interpreting the scene. Or its value is diminished, somehow its not authentic. I view myself as an artist who uses photography as my current medium of expression.

LS:     Can you tell me how the Carta portfolios got started?

BC:     Being a printer I'm really into paper, and I have piles of it everywhere. I spend hours every week trimming out prints on my paper cutter; it's probably the tool I use more than anything in my digital studio when I'm working for clients. I'd be trimming rolls of paper and strips would fall to the floor and one day looked down and noticed that the shapes were interesting. I like abstract work, and I've done a number of abstract projects over recent years. I started noticing how the different sizes and shapes and thicknesses of paper and different papers would assume interesting forms. I started to explore that using paper as the subject. In photography paper is usually the vehicle for the image and this time I've turned it around and made paper the subject. 

LS:     How are the images made?

BC:     The work is studio work. I'm lighting the paper with three five-dollar flashlights. I like working with constrains. I find that trying to keep things simple allows me to focus on the essence of the work rather than getting caught up in some elaborate set up. The things that I'm photographing are fairly small in scale so I needed what I'd call an intimate lighting environment, and having these small flashlights that I could move around and get very close to the paper would create this imitate setting and get some of the effects I wanted. It's one of those projects where you shoot a lot and, thank god for digital, this is all captured digitally. That's my general workflow. I have no allegiance to film, so to speak. My sense of the capture is that is only one step, and there's nothing special about film in particular. There are certain film cameras that lead to a specific effects, and that may be a reason to use film, but in my workflow I shoot digitally. It gives me some freedom, and no one can really look at my work and tell me if it was shot on film or digital.

LS:     That surprises me, as the prints are palladium. Are you then making digital negatives then to produce the prints?

BC:     Exactly. Yes, I learned how to do this about two years ago. There's a number of platinum
Bob Cornelis in his studio sorting digital negatives
palladium teachers out there who teach this method. I wanted to learn from somebody who had a calibrated system that would allow me to make really good quality digital negatives. So I studied with a guy Kerik Kouklis. He has a system using a QTR rip that allows you to control individual inks in a certain way. Basically you make a custom curve for each paper and for each process. Its a little like making a digital printer profile for a particular paper on your inkjet printer. I make digital negatives and the beauty of that is that the front end of the process is technical, its 21st Century — I'm shooting with a digital camera, I use Photoshop, and a QTR to make digital negatives on a high end inkjet printer. It's kind of this hybrid between 19th and 21st Century technology. I like the physicality of the papers, there are some beautiful papers that platinum palladium prints can be printed in, I like coating with a brush, but all the work's been done in the negative, so the actual printing is pretty easy. I mean, you need to deal with the chemistry but there's no dodging or burning at print time, it's all built into the negative. You simply expose it and run it through the chemistry. 

LS:     Is there something special for you about the platinum palladium print other than the 19th Century appeal and its physicality?

Bob Cornelis mixing Palladium chemistry.
BC:     Yes there is. It's been interesting to watch people look at the physical prints because often they can't really articulate what it is about the print that causes them to feel this, but there is a palpable difference in that kind of print. When I talk to them, people say it has a three dimensional feel. The Carta series is a good series for this process. I always try to match my series with a process that has some kind of inherent value, I don't choose them arbitrarily. Because they're fully tonal images, I thought that palladium prints would be a good match. In fact, these are really palladium prints, there's no platinum in them, because I really like the warmish tone you get from palladium. The reason for that is that platinum palladium has the longest tonal range of any printing process. With digital negatives it creates a very linear distribution of those tonal ranges, so it's very precise. The net effect of that is it gives a sort of creamy luscious quality to the print because there are so many discrete distinct steps from white to black. The

LS:     As I'm looking at the pictures one thing that stands out to me is that the images seem design oriented — about frame, about line, about tone. Is there anything more for you personally in these images — especially given how close you are to the subject matter?

BC:     I like working with abstraction, which is a tricky thing in photography. It's not everybody's cup of tea, and it begs the question I hate to answer — "What is that a picture of?" As soon as you answer the question it distances the viewer from the experience and they want to move on — "Ok, I know what it is, I want to see the next thing." In this case its difficult if you don't know what the subject is to know that these are pictures. There's a balance there though, too little a reference, too abstract, and the work can become untethered and hard for people to appreciate.

Carta II, G – Bob Cornelis
LS:     I wanted to talk a bit about the differences between Carta I and Carta II. Carta I is full tonal scale and appears to be lit from within, and Carta II is very stark – very much about the line.

BC:     Right — actually, the other day after looking at some paper I'd trimmed, I'll be starting Carta III. You know the nice thing about these projects is that because they're abstract there isn't a narrative end point — you can just keep exploring them. With Carta I, I was intrigued by the sensual quality of the large pieces of paper and really focusing on their surfaces, their curvature, and the dance between line, surface, and light. After Carta I, I wanted to start introducing harder edges and angular constructs into those pieces. In some of Carta I you can see an evolution, initially it was all curved organic shapes, and then I moved to something more stark, as you say, geometric and angular — less organic, if you will. One is this luscious landscape, the other a barren and stark environment.

LS:     I know you briefly spoke of your inspirations, are there any other photographers you're currently looking at? Anything else that adds to your images?

BC:     I am very interested in form. I'm very interested by work done in the 20s and 30s, the Bauhaus, and formalism, and that interest shows up in a number of different projects. It's my aesthetic. Ive been told that my work has a retro feel to it and its maybe a little different than a lot of contemporary photography but somehow I keep going back to the focus on form and beauty.

Carta II, N – Bob Cornelis

View the Carta I portfolio

View the Carta II portfolio

For more information, and to purchase prints, please contact Gallery Director Anne Kelly at 505-988-5152 x 121 or