Painting with Light

Article by Roxana Florina Popa

How to create images that depict who you are rather than how to take pictures that everybody will guess who you are. Everything in me is involved in the process, eye, soul, imagination, thought, everything…this is totally handmade and low tech and it’s 100% photographic.”

Iswanto Soerjanto

Artist Portrait

Courtesy of Mizuma Gallery

Iswanto Soerjanto, Indonesian artist, exhibits solo at the Mizuma Gallery in Singapore from 22 February to 29 March 2020.

His art brings cameraless photography at a convergent point of versatile Asian mastery by applying the ’70s Dansaekhwa art trend of the monochrome, the Japanese Wabi Sabi aesthetics principle and the Indonesian techniques of wax utilisation in the dyeing of the batik.

Cameraless photography is an enduring, sacrosanct trend constantly developed for at least 3 centuries now and as primordial as the Greek words photo and gramma

Nature is an original and resourceful collaborator that allows the soul of the artist to bath in the streaming shapes of inspiration. No more rushed clicks to catch the ephemeral. The light is here to stay longer. The traveller and his camera are now sublimated. The travel is replaced by pure focused meditation. The image creation is led by the artist’s soul who takes the invisible hand of the light. The artist acts as the camera. His cameraless installation becomes an entire workshop that is reassembled every time for every new photogram.

Photographs document our daily realities with the help of technology. 

Cameraless photography is completely original and unexpected.

It rather belongs to the realm of magic.

Cameraless photography unfolds the mystery of the artist’s imperceptible being at the same time playing the game of his revelation.

Iswanto Soerjanto’s exhibition “Painting with Light” showcases Chemigram and Cyanotype technique works from 2018 and 2019.

Interview with the cameraless photographer,

Iswanto Soerjanto

Roxana Florina Popa:  What lies in the act of leaving the classical camera aside for you and your creative life?

Iswanto Soerjanto: Photography comes from the words “photos” and “graphos” in Greek which means “to paint with light”.

By removing the camera from the creative process, it doesn’t mean eliminating the essence of photography which is “painting with light”. Instead,  through cameraless photography, I revive the history of photography which is considered outdated and I present something new in the context of contemporary art, especially things that relate to values of life as an Indonesian.

I left my camera behind for a good reason, which is the freedom to expand the means of photography.   In 2013, I started my research on the history of photography. Photography was first observed as a physical phenomenon and later, combined with the discovery of light sensitive material, became what we know today as “photography”.   History of photography is often forgotten and rarely used as a reference. People tend to take pictures with the camera following the same procedures and photographic techniques to build certain narratives that are almost identical, similar or even exact. 

Iswanto Soerjanto

Untitled 7 ©2019

Courtesy of Mizuma Gallery Singapore

RFP: Could you imagine making cameraless photography during your travels? Which place would you fancy most to shine its light rays on your creations?

IS: This is a very interesting question… I sometimes think about how this can be done in the future, but of course it must be prepared carefully.  In fact, my creative process is not complicated, but it requires careful arrangements and consideration, such as how to get enough water supply, how to transport light sensitive chemicals, the disposal of chemical waste and all that.  I’d love to travel to places where there’s enough sun light to begin with, cool and quiet, it’s perfect for meditation. 

RFP: How does the workshop of a cameraless photographer look like?

IS: It’s messy … I had to build my own developing trays which can hold 40×60” paper for both silver gelatin  paper (photo paper) and watercolor paper (coated paper).  I turned my ex photography studio which is now 8×8 meters (before it was 8×12 meters, I had to share the space with my wife’s business) into a large darkroom.  I also have a “normal” photography darkroom for developing films and printing from negatives which I occasionally use for my lab research.

Iswanto Soerjanto

Transformations in Blue ©2018

Courtesy of Mizuma Gallery Singapore

RFP: Who is the subject of your photography: the light, the shades, the shapes, the colours, a particular subtle reality?

IS: I have no subject. It’s just the masking or resist, if I may say, as my subject.  The subject is no longer important. What recorded on the light sensitive material whether on paper, fabric, or other surfaces as a result of the movement to cover up or leave uncovered or the chemical reactions that form various streaks are a reflection of meditation and become the subject.

RFP: What kind of reality do you like to capture through a cameraless installation compared to that exposed by a camera?

IS: A reality at that particular moment, when I did some masking on light sensitive paper.  I was meditating, entering the stage of silence, aware of the present time and try to draw the essence.  So, reality depicted in my works is actually my expressions towards life, whether something exhilarating and a relief or otherwise.

RFP: Is it to a large or small extent that you rely on your installations to reveal shapes and patterns? Do you “paint with light” in your mind the forms that your photographic techniques are meant to make visible? Or, on the contrary, do you always await in exciting anticipation to see what new images were created through your installation?

IS: I do not directly record an object as in photograms by placing objects that can be recognized later on a sheet of developed photo paper.  I masked with certain shape (cardboard for instance) back and forth in different places and directions.  The trace of masking moved around during exposure and created its own shape, gradation etc.  I act as an initiator so that photographic process takes place, the rest I leave it to nature.  As the initiator I determine the composition, the amount of exposure  time needed for each masking, the dilution of the chemicals and make sure that the process is running well.

RFP: If the techniques influence the shapes, do you like to meditate more on the patterns or on new different techniques?

IS: Yes, of course.  Meditation is very important in my process.  I like being in the stage of silence, it gives the opportunity for our mind to see things deeply.

RFP: What is the wisdom that comes with meditating on a cameraless photographic technique? How is the time spent on your creations? Do you feel your eye, soul and imagination are more involved with the photographic process or is the creation rather left to external factors?

IS: You will be more focused on

How to create images that depict who you are rather than how to take pictures that everybody will guess who you are – Iswanto Soerjanto. 

Everything in me is involved in the process, eye, soul, imagination, thought, everything…this is totally handmade and low tech and it’s 100% photographic.

Iswanto Soerjanto
Ngono Yo Ngono, Ning Ojo Ngono ©2019, Cyanotype on Arches paper
and Line Meditations ©2018
Courtesy of Mizuma Gallery Singapore

RFP: Would you like to share with us a few of your techniques? What inspired you to use Chemigram and Cyanotype techniques instead of others? Is there any root in your advertising career or is it a completely different art? How does cameraless photography differs from the classical one and what are its advantages?

IS: Basically it’s like making a photogram, I use masking (usually a piece of cardboard) which varies from transparent to opaque. For the chemigram, I use soft resist such as honey, sweet soy sauce, masking tape, glue, varnish anything that can be applied temporary on the photo paper and water soluble so it gradually dissolves in liquids.  Cyanotype represents the past when people started printing images and it was introduced by Sir John Herschel in 1842. Chemigram represents the present time photography introduced by Pierre Cordier in 1956. Both processes represent a long span of history of photography.

My 24 years of commercial photography experience was totally different from my creative process.

Obviously, the advantage of cameraless photography is that  one doesn’t have to worry about what kind of camera equipment they should have to create good images.  The only problems I encounter is that I have to purchase all photographic supplies from the US or Europe, it costs me a lot.

Iswanto Soerjanto
Line Meditations ©2018, Chemigram on silver gelatin paper
Courtesy of Mizuma Gallery Singapore

RFP: To what point do the chemical/physical processes keep changing the photography? Do you apply to your photographs a final stabilised touch?

IS: As Wabi Sabi principle says, there are three things always happening in life: nothing is perfect, nothing is eternal and nothing is complete, so does a photograph.  

No matter how perfect we keep and maintain a photograph, it will fade away someday. As a natural process, photographs will change from time to time, but we might not notice the changes at all.  Of course I soaked all my photographic paper in fixer solution before framing.

Iswanto Soerjanto
Transformations in Blue ©2018
Courtesy of Mizuma Gallery Singapore

RFP: Do you think cameraless photography emerged in order to increase creative variety against smartphone and other digital photography?

IS: It’s hard to answer, maybe

someday people would create smartphone apps converting real image into cameraless image.  Today, it seems like everything is possible – Iswanto Soerjanto

RFP: In the spirit of Dansaekhwa art trend, what are the latest insights that you would like to apply in your future cameraless photography?

IS: I really adore Dansaekhwa.  The principles of Dansaekhwa inspired me in many ways.  I’m currently working on research of the history of early colour photography which combines light sensitive chemicals and color pigments to create an image and that might relate to one of the Dansaekhwa principles.

Special Thanks go to the artist, Iswanto Soerjanto, the Mizuma Gallery Singapore and the gallery liaison, Ms Cai Yun Teo

About the Artist

Iswanto Soerjanto was born in Jakarta, Indonesia in 1967. He graduated from the Brooks Institute of Photography, Santa Barbara, California United States with a major in Illustration and Advertising Photography in 1988. His solo exhibitions to date include Painting with Light at Mizuma Gallery, Singapore (2020); and his first solo exhibition Re-Definition at Selasar Sunaryo Art Space, Bandung, Indonesia (2018). He has also been part of various group exhibitions, such as ON / OUT OF PAPER at Mizuma Gallery, Singapore (2019); Art on Paper Amsterdam at Gallery Lukisan, the Netherlands (2018); Beyond Photography at Ciputra Artpreneur Centre, Jakarta, Indonesia (2011); and at Garis Art Space in both Jakarta (2008) and Bali (2004), Indonesia. Iswanto Soerjanto lives and works in Jakarta, Indonesia.

About Mizuma Gallery

Executive Director Sueo Mizuma established Mizuma Art Gallery in Tokyo in 1994. Since its opening in Gillman Barracks, Singapore in 2012, the gallery aims for the promotion of East Asian artists to the international art scene. From 2014 to 2019, the artist residency space “Rumah Kijang Mizuma” opened in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, to create a new platform for dialogue by supporting exchanges between East Asia and Southeast Asia.

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