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Print’s Not Dead

This photographer uses an antique style of photo printing to explore dreams, the sea, and the human body.

In a world where everything’s gone digital—stories, maps, music—photography is probably the most widely shared and easily accessible medium available. All over Instagram, you see panoramic stills of beaches, portraits of random people, flatlays of virtually anything that’s ever been considered food.

So where does that leave print? Real, actual photos you can touch and display. Is the picture frame business finally on its last legs?

For photographer Dar San Agustin, though, this is where some of the most interesting aspects of photography lie. Her recent exhibit, Prussian Blues, makes use of cyanotypes—a photographic printing technique from the 1800s—to create images. Cyanotypes use a chemical solution (and sometimes even household materials) to leave an image on paper. This involves leaving the subject, called the resist, on top of the paper for about thirty minutes, before the paper is rinsed and the image is imprinted in cyan blue.

With no cameras, no new technology, and the possibility of sunburn, Dar created a series of cyanotypes that explore dreams, the human body, and the sea.

Mantle: How did the idea for Prussian Blues begin?

Dar: When I started studying, we had a class on alternative processing, and that’s when I fell in love with traditional printing. It’s amazing how science works to create images. Though I still shoot digitally. If #FilmIsNotDead exists, for me it’s #PrintIsNotDead (laughs).

M: Why is that?

D: What I really wanted to share is that print is not dead. A photograph is not complete if it’s not a solid, tangible item. Everyone is on digital now right, but the soul of a photograph is more complete if you can see it in person. That’s why I started using traditional printing for my past two exhibits. For Prussian Blues, I experimented with working “outside a picture frame.” It’s like breaking the stereotype that a physical picture should be in a frame. I want to share that you don’t have to be confined inside the four corners of a frame. I guess this is my way of telling people that photography is also an art itself. Because usually, collectors still go for paintings.

M: So how were these images created?

D: My process doesn’t use a camera. To create an image I used sunlight and chemistry and a resist. The resist is what you call the object that blocks the sunlight. In this case I used models. I was throwing salt and vinegar on the paper to create different gradations for the colors, so it looked like I was cooking them (laughs). I also chose the shape of my models. For one image, I wanted someone who you couldn’t tell if it was male or female, just that it was human. For the girl, I chose one who really had a feminine shape, one with larger breasts to exaggerate the effect.

M: We see that you used other elements as well, to drive the point home.

D: For Prussian Blues, I used augmented reality on some of the pieces. For me, sometimes it becomes difficult to understand the abstract, unless the artist tells you the story or the title, right? So I used augmented reality to give the full narrative of the art work. One of my works is entitled “Up in the Sky”, but to complete the experience, I show some paper planes coming out of the photo. I think people nowadays are always on their phones, so I wanted to add that element in my works. The concept of some of the pieces is mixing low tech (old school cyanotype printing) and high tech (cellphones). I also wanted interaction with the audience, because I want the audience to do something when viewing the works. Like, as much as possible, they would have something to do to complete the whole story of my work (laughs).

I also made an infinity lamp/mirror. It’s titled “Deep Blues.” When you look at it you will see a reflection of yourself (just like how you see a reflection of yourself on still water), then when you turn the lamp on, you’ll see the “under the ocean” look. It’s like the feeling you get when you jump under the sea. The only parts of the ocean you see are the ones that are reached by the light, because in the super deep parts of the sea, it’s already dark. I call it the “Infini-sea” (laughs).

Deep Blues