Astra Velum: A Veil of Stars

Inside the Astra Velum portfolio.

It all starts in San Francisco. I was there several years ago (actually five, now that I do the math), doing some photography, and I met this girl. She was the girlfriend of a friend of a friend, and we were all out at a bar for food and drinks one evening. She had the most amazing freckles, and I finally asked her if I could take her portrait. She agreed, but the only light I could find was that from the sign outside the bar. But that was sufficient, and…well, you can see beautiful the freckled result here.

After that, I would occasionally encounter someone with beautiful freckles, and arrange to photograph him or her. I met people in parks, at weddings, middle schools, and through posts on craigslist. I photographed most of them at my home, inside or out. It was a simple shoot, generally, but the results were lovely. The resulting body of images I titled Astra Velum (Latin for “Veil of Stars”).  You can view Astra Velum here.

All the while, I was considering how best to present the work in the end. I tried many media: modern tintypes, collodion tintypes, inkjet prints, C-prints, letterpress prints, and in the end, photogravure. And that was the answer.

I settled on photogravure because, like the images I was printing, it had a lovely texture to it: the paper, the ink, the impression, everything about photogravure is subtly textured and tactile.

In the digital age, I feel more and more distant from the handmade quality of photography—the manual labor of developing film and dodging and burning prints. But even darkroom work—which I never particularly enjoyed in and of itself—created a product that was made by hand, but showed no evidence of it. For this reason I’m drawn to processes like tintype, encaustic, and photogravure, which show clear evidence of the artist’s involvement with the final product.

Until now, I’ve not been a process person; I’d rather shoot and edit, and then have a print magically appear (which, of course, is the draw of inkjet printing). But I’ve found a real pleasure in the process of printing photogravure. While it’s the most complicated printing process I’ve ever pursued, it does have its advantages. I enjoy the craftiness of it—cutting out handmade paper for the chin-collé, inking and wiping the plate just so, the steady rhythm of turning the crank on the press, pulling the print off the plate and catching my breath, stunned by its beauty. I like the rounded corners of the plate, the indentation of the plate in the paper, the traces of unwiped ink at its edges, the occasional fingerprint. Like freckles, these are not flaws, but beauty marks.

Photogravure also offers a final product imitated but not reproduced by any other photographic printing medium: chin-collé. This method of impressing a second paper in between the ink and the backing paper is a traditional technique in printmaking. It consists of cutting a piece of paper—in my case, a handmade Japanese paper—the exact same size as the plate. When inked, the plate is placed on the press bed with the Japanese paper over top, and on top of that paper a glue is applied. Finally, the backing paper is placed in register over the plate and Japanese paper. This stack is run through the press, which exerts approximately 45,000 pounds of pressure on the sandwich of plate and papers. In doing so, the ink is pressed into the Japanese paper, which is glued and embossed into the backing paper. (Click here to view a PDF I’ve created, with images of my process, and an explanation of photogravaure.) In this way, I create a unique print, with glowing warm high values (from the warm Japanese paper), placed against the white of the backing paper. The result is a hand-made print whose depth and luminescence is unmatched by any other pho­tographic print-making process. They really must be seen in person to be fully appreciated.

For these reasons, handmade photogravures seemed the perfect medium for a series which, at its essence, explores the beauty of surface textures: human skin and its freckles and scars, like a thin veil of stars.

April, a woman I grew up with and whom I photographed for this series, told me a story from her childhood. One day after playing outside, her grandmother asked her to go wash up. She went to the bathroom and did so, but grandma wasn’t satisfied. “Your face isn’t clean! Go scrub it some more!” The young girl was distraught, for all that was left on her skin were her freckles, and no amount of scrubbing would make them go away.

While many people view freckles as an aberration or blemish, my response is the opposite. I find them enchanting, unique, even exotic. More than once, while photographing for this series, a model thanked me for making something beautiful out of what they often viewed as a flaw.

Astra Velum is available as a limited-edition portfolio of 12 photogravures, in a custom clamshell box, with cover page. The signed and numbered portfolio is limited to an edition of 12. An educational discount may be available for institutional collections. Individual prints of the larger series are also available in a limited edition of 30. Pricing for both the portfolio and prints escalate as the edition sells out.

I introduced the portfolio at PhotoLucida 2011 here in Portland, Oregon, and it was very well received, with some exhibits in the works. This past week, several people have written about it:

Aline Smithson of LENSCRATCH

Simona Marani in Rome

Melanie McWhorter of Photo-Eye (who is now selling the limited edition portfolio)

You really have to see these photogravures in order to recognize how different they are from any other type of photographic print. As Melanie put it in her write-up, “These lovely, luminscent, one-of-a-kind prints really must be seen to be appreciated.” If you’re in the Portland area, I’d be happy to have you come by and take a look; contact me and let me know.

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