Matthew Brandt’s striking, curious photographs call as much attention to his creative process as to the final images themselves—indeed, the two cannot be separated. Brandt’s experimental techniques literally incorporate his subjects into their construction. In his most famous series, Lakes and Reservoirs, the artist shoots traditional, postcard-perfect landscapes of Western bodies of water before soaking the film-based prints—for days, weeks, or even months—in basins filled with water from that specific location. The finished work, removed from the water when the desired appearance is achieved, is marbled, discolored, and permanently changed, transformed from a classic American panorama to an abstracted jewel.
An element of the unknown plays a large part in the final appearance of the images in Lakes and Reservoirs, such as Long Lake, WA 10. Brandt must ultimately rely on the nature of the water itself to produce the ultimate product. Changes in tone and color, as well as the near erasure of sections of the image, are determined by the chemical makeup of the lakes or reservoirs themselves, including the amount and type of sediment found therein. A higher level of acidity might transform a placid lake into a burst of psychedelic pinks and yellows; a certain type of sediment “can cause a sparkle effect as the c-print starts to break up… I love when that happens,” Brandt has said. The artist’s laissez-faire attitude to his printing process, as well as his conventional, film-based methods, is a refreshing foil to the perfectionism of many photographers working in high-gloss, digital formats. Ultimately, due to the nature of his technique, each work that Brandt creates is unique—no work from the Long Lake sub-series is exactly alike. Some images look washed-out, literally, devoid of color and brightness, while others—one might argue that Long Lake, WA 10 is among them—exhibit flourishes that have much in common with painterly brushstrokes or calligraphy. The comparison, particularly, with painting is apt, as Brandt often cites 19th-century Hudson River landscapes as one of his primary influences.
Seeing the effects that water can have on a chromogenic print—in any other situation, one might refer to it as damage—immediately brings to mind an environmental subtext to Brandt’s Lakes and Reservoirs series. The lakes from which the water is collected (Brandt saves up to five gallons per location he visits in order to assure that he has enough liquid to immerse multiple prints) appear calm and serene on the surface, but pollution (both natural and chemical) alter their essence. If repeated or prolonged exposure to this substance can so utterly contaminate photographic paper, what could it do to humans or animals that consume or bathe in it? Like the photographs of Vik Muniz and Chris Jordan (Jordan’s works are in the NCMA’s permanent collection), Matthew Brandt’s works ask for discussion and interpretation in a wider context of conservation and ecological health.
Tags: environmental science, ecology, nature