In the tradition of nineteenth-century photograms by William Henry Fox Talbot and Anna Atkins, this collection of recent work by Kate Breakey presents the animals, plants, and insects of the American Southwest with scientific precision and breathtaking loveliness.
Series: Southwestern and Mexican Photography Series, The Wittliff Collections, The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University; Bill Wittliff, Series Editor
Las sombras, the shadows, are literally that—shadows left behind when Kate Breakey places objects on photosensitive paper and shines light on them. And yet, in the inevitable reversal of photography, these shadows are full of light—and more than light. Breakey’s luminous images of coyotes and whipsnakes, hopping mice and scorpions, are filled with her love of the American Southwest, which is now her home, and the animals, plants, and insects that inhabit it. As she says, “The natural world is full of wondrous things to look at and to chronicle and catalogue. In my own way, I have devoted myself to that end.”
Las Sombras/The Shadows presents new work that Kate Breakey has created since moving to Arizona in 1999. Making pictures without a camera, like early nineteenth-century photographers such as William Henry Fox Talbot and Anna Atkins, Breakey also shares their affinity for recording the natural world in scientific detail, as well as with artistic beauty. Breakey’s contact prints, known as photograms or photogenic drawings, have the sepia-toned look of Victorian illustrations, yet their sensibility is distinctly modern. In the way she poses the animals, Breakey’s coyotes and rabbits dance; her birds fly. Accompanying the images is an essay by poet Lia Purpura, in which she invites las sombras to spark her own investigation of shadows, of the absence that paradoxically becomes a kind of presence, especially when held in a photograph. This revealing conversation between images and words opens up a new way of seeing, a discovery of substance in shadows.
- List of Plates
- Las Sombras/The Shadows
- The Plates
Las Sombras/The Shadows
I picked the dead coyote up off the road. It had been hit by a car, probably at dawn that morning. It was surprisingly heavy, but its coat was finer and softer than I had imagined. I had never been this close to a coyote before—it was like someone's docile pet dog, all its wildness gone now, just a quiet corpse. A female. I imagined her pack, maybe even her young, waiting for her, calling her. Road kill, large or small, always fills me with anger and sadness. My heart aches for the loss of an innocent life.
A curious cyclist stopped to watch me loading her in the car. "I just want to bury it," I said. This was not the whole truth, but it was too hard to explain that I was taking her home to make a picture, a photogram. She would become a pale coyote shape against a dark background. She would make her own image, a kind of shadow, which would last long after her body was gone. On the way home I worried she might not fit under the enlarger and that my paper wouldn't be wide enough. And it was going to be hard work digging such a big hole. Maybe I would leave her out in the desert for the buzzards—after all, that would be what nature intended.
In 1834, William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877) saw that silver salts darkened in the sun and invented a photographic process he called "photogenic drawing"—in which images were made without a camera, the subject simply laid on chemically treated paper and exposed to light. Soon afterwards the daughter of a biologist, an Englishwoman called Anna Atkins (1799–1871), began a decade-long obsession with collecting and documenting algae and seaweed, using a similar process known as cyanotype photograms. She self-published this collection—hundreds of beautiful, otherworldly images of white amorphous shapes floating on a deep blue background—in a series of volumes called Photographs of British Algae. Although she labeled the images in neat Victorian handwriting with their classifying genus and species, I expect that, to her, they were more than just records of botanical specimens.
When I first put a eucalyptus leaf on a piece of photographic paper in the dark, in an art school in Australia roughly 130 years later, my fate was sealed, my own desire to document and chronicle the natural world having been set in motion. In my own way, I have devoted myself to that end.
As I laid the coyote on the photographic paper, gently stroked the dust and grit off its glossy coat, and arranged its tail, I thought about Anna arranging her seaweed with the same care and with the same anticipation. These images are "contact prints" of the remains of living things—plants, reptiles, mammals, insects, and birds. Their imprints, ghostly shadows, are burned directly onto paper with light and with love to make a permanent record, a lasting impression.