Fine Art Photography

Christopher Russell’s Unique Artwork Combines Photography and Drawing

April 17, 2017

By Conor Risch

There exist different philosophies among photographers about what images can and should do for the viewer. Some make pictures to convey a specific idea or message, others strive for ambiguity.

Christopher Russell began scratching drawings into the surfaces of his prints because the photographs he was making “met the idea in my head, but the connections I was making were too abstract,” he explains. It was 2004, and he’d recently graduated from the “theory heavy” Art Center College of Design MFA program. His images, he felt, didn’t supply “enough for the viewer to latch onto.” So Russell used a razor blade to add more information.

“Aftermath #22,” for instance, is an image of rays of sunlight bursting through the mostly bare branches of a large tree. Into the lower portion of the print, Russell scratched patterns that recall leaves and wind, along with the lower torso of a person and the head and back of a wolf. For “The Challenge Wind Makes XVI,” Russell scratched organic patterns and several ships’ masts into a photograph of what appears to be tree trunks. These and other pieces are part of a mini-retrospective exhibition of Russell’s work this month at Upfor Gallery in Portland, Oregon.

© Christopher Russell/Courtesy of Upfor Gallery

“Aftermath #30,” 2014, from the series ”Dissonance, Coincidence and Errant Gradations of Light.” © Christopher Russell/Courtesy of Upfor Gallery

As Russell notes in a statement he shared with PDN, his process places his images between two media. “They are drawings in the sense that they are inscribed marks, yet they are in constant flux, cycling through subordination to, and dominance over the photomechanical image.” His drawing emphasizes photographic reproduction while also undermining it. By making each photographic print a unique object, Russell’s work also begs questions about the creation of value through manufactured scarcity. His use of wallpaper-like organic patterns considers the ways we try to represent the natural world in art, design and decoration. Russell started photographing wallpaper patterns as a student, he says, because it interested him. “It’s not trying to faithfully recreate nature, but it’s trying to duplicate what nature does, and that is to become infinite.”

In the past year, Russell has drawn halftone patterns on images he’s made of the landscape around Portland, Oregon, where he moved from Los Angeles in 2013. Alone in an unfamiliar place, Russell went to natural areas “that were photographed all the time,” such as Multnomah Falls, “where one is expected to replicate the postcard view” that photographers and hobbyists make. Instead, he turned his back on the “postcard” views, and draped colored cloth over his camera to create color gradients. “I wanted to make use of these areas, but in a way that yielded a completely different result,” he explains. He was interested in the question: “How do you continue to make something from this thing that is so beautiful but yet is overexposed?”

The halftone patterns Russell etched into the surfaces of these photographs are floral, but they appear to overlap, as if semi-transparent sheets of paper were folded or collaged. The halftone drawings were inspired by what he saw while he was making work prints in his studio. When he reused or misfed a sheet of paper into his printer, “the patterns would overlap or words would mix with images.” The result seemed to have the sensibility of plants looking for sunlight.”

“Nature,” Russell notes, “is a lot about things fighting for control.”

The technical challenge of drawing the overlapping patterns increased the time it took to create a piece five-fold, he estimates. Part of what allowed him to challenge himself was the fact that he was selling more work. “I was financially comfortable, so there wasn’t always this dreadful anxiety over everything that happens in the studio,” he explains. That level of comfort “became something that pushed the work along.” For his series “The Falls,” Russell created 40 pieces, which include his “Mountain” works. Those recent pieces incorporate more light and color while still using the halftone drawings.

In viewing Russell’s prints, one appreciates the skill and attention required to scrape at the surface of a photograph as he does. In terms of time spent, there is definitely not an equal balance between photography and drawing in his work: His drawings can take weeks. Yet, he says, photography is the essential element. “If I just took a pen and made these exact same drawings on paper, they wouldn’t be anything close to what they are given their interaction with photography and the excavation into the print,” he explains.

If his practice were to shift, he says, “I’m not going to discard the photograph. I’m more likely to discard the drawing, if it comes to that.”

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