Walk into most exhibits of the Robert C. May photography series at The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky and you see images of similar styles and sizes. But the current exhibit by Jerry Spagnoli offers a trio of image types: small 19th-century silver plates, large color images and nearly floor-to-ceiling prints that look like images from a surveillance satellite.
"I usually don't display three different bodies of work at the same time," Spagnoli says. "There's always the danger that it looks like a bunch of exercises in different types of formal issues, not really coherent at all."
Spagnoli says the variety of styles he has employed are in part an effort to explore the possibilities of different cameras and film types, seeing what he can get out of the camera and what it takes to make a great photo from those formats.
"It's kind of the essence of photography that there's always some kind of disorderliness about its depictions, something the medium contributes that is over and above what the photographer intended," Spagnoli says. "So there's that negotiation with the medium that's essential to the exemplary demonstration of the art, rather than trying to master it by using Photoshop or whatever and making it something it is not."
Far from digital photography and processing images on computers, Spagnoli, who lives in New York, is working with forms that date to the earliest days of photography, particularly the daguerreotype, which creates its images on plates of polished silver. The images, which hang on the right wall as visitors enter the museum's photo gallery, can be hard to see without custom-made black cardboard shades that help block reflections from lights and other works. What you see are images that are contemporary — the inauguration of President Barack Obama, the dedication of the Sept. 11 memorial — but that look like images of events long lost to living memory.
"That discussion came up when I photographed the events of 9/11 with daguerreotype," Spagnoli says. "We realized that you have all the images of it, and they all had a modern look or a contemporary look to them, which is what you'd expect. But I think in using an older medium, there is this aspect of placing it in the context of these past events — there's a continuity. It doesn't stand as an isolated event.
"That was one of the reasons I wanted to do the inauguration as well, because they're the same as the Lincoln images, and I wanted to tie that together."
Making photos such as these involves more than taking out a digital SLR. Spagnoli often works with a wooden camera with bellows that sits on a tripod.
"Sometimes I get people that want me to take their picture, like a guy and his girlfriend, 'Hey, take our picture,' and I have to say, that's not what I do," Spagnoli says, noting that when the photo plates are $150 each, he's far from taking street snapshots.
Often, after a while, Spagnoli says people will forget he is there, which lets him capture very natural images.
The daguerreotypes influenced another series, Local Stories, which hangs on the opposite wall in the museum gallery. These are large color prints of streets, parks and other public places in locations around the world. Spagnoli says he got the idea because backlit scenes with the sun in the photo work well for daguerreotypes, so he tried these images, with the sun at the center, taken on 8-by-10-inch film plates.
Lest we think Spagnoli is interested only in old-school methods, he says one of the next things he would like to explore is video and the possibilities for long-form pictures and images. Once again, one method is inspiring a number of others.
"Since I spend a lot of time standing around with these big cameras waiting for the right scene, I became interested in how things can change and the idea of showing a scene over the course of an hour," Spagnoli says. "It would pay to watch it, but if you moved around the space and occasionally looked back, it would change."