Transitions: Photographs by Robert Creamer is no ordinary photography exhibition. In fact, at one point we weren't even sure if the term "photograph" was the right word for Bob's innovative imagery. There's no camera involved, and I'm not describing paintings or drawings. So what are we talking about?
Creamer's images of natural specimens such as flowers, feathers, and animal bones are rendered by a high-end flatbed scanner. The artist/scientist (he considers himself an artist first, but once you see the images, his passion for scientific detail is obvious) lays out elaborate compositions on his glass "canvas" and then uses the technology to produce large-scale, absolutely stunning pictures. Creamer's focus for this exhibition is the process of change that occurs to organic objects over time.
Just before Transitions went on the road with SITES, I chatted with the artist about his technique, his subject matter, and his love of everything natural. Here's what he had to say:
Q. Why use a scanner? Why not a nice, new digital camera?
A. The scanner does remarkable things. The light source is always straight on, making everything look like it was painted with an artist's sense of perfect light refraction. The scanner creates a drop shadow as it illuminates, and suddenly, the light falls off into total darkness. Everything in the picture is crisp and sharp. With a traditional camera the process of capturing something is reductive, trying to record large objects and fit them into a small camera frame. With the scanner, it's like starting with a naked blank slate. This process is totally additive and constructive.
Q. What is it about these images that appeals to viewers?
A. The audience is drawn to the detail in these images. People find the colors to be very curious, wondering whether or not they are accurate. As flowers breakdown, they change color, and the scanner renders those hues as they appear in nature.
Q. What's your favorite subject matter?
A. Irises are my favorite subject because they constantly surprise me. Recently, my daughter's boyfriend brought me an assortment of irises which I put directly into the freezer. When I took the irises out of deep freeze, I broke them apart and placed them on sheets of glass. To my dismay, the freezing destroyed the character of the flowers, including the color, the texture, and the tissues themselves. Instead, the flowers became a gelatinous mush. I was getting ready to trash the entire project when I noticed that mold had started to form on the glass slides. Serendipity. The intricate web of dark mold was ripe with possibilities.
Q. I guess you're never at a loss for things to scan?
A. Everything I do creates a new beginning, and I will never run out of source material. I think three, four, ten project ahead. How about trying seashells, rocks, or something entirely different? But timing is everything. Depending on the object or specimen, I may wait for weeks or even months for the subject to be just right.
Q. Where do you collect most of your specimens?
A. The lotuses [in my images] came from Lilypons Water Garden, near Frederick, Maryland. The irises came from the Botanical Gardens in Florida, and the bones from the Nature Center [a Smithsonian affiliate] in Virginia. I also have a greenhouse at home where I tend to live plants. Outside, there are drying racks for specimens. Inside the house, my wife and kids ask, 'Can we throw this away?' 'No, I'm not done with that yet!' The conversation at dinner usually includes something like, 'Dad took over another room in the house!' The point is just to see what happens with an object.
Bob Creamer teaches digital photography at Catonsville Community College near Baltimore, Maryland. He also teaches digital and traditional photography at the Old Field School in Baltimore.