To create his new series “Silver,” photographer Matthew Brandt made silver gelatin prints of his photographs of trees and forests, then treated the prints with liquid silver, creating unique artworks. The process produces a mirrored layer which stands in relief from the deep silver of the prints. The resulting prints create a dialogue between image and object, while interacting with the viewer by bringing their reflection into the frame. The work, which is part of Brandt’s solo show at M+B Gallery this spring, is the outgrowth of an experience the young artist had in early 2017.

“I got lost in a forest in Idyllwild, California. It was kind of scary at first but there was something very sublime about it,” Brandt explains. “I had a moment of reflection, and my problems and worries seemed a little insignificant next to these ancient trees that had endured so long. It was a strange experience that I wanted to capture.”

“Silver” follows Brandt’s breakthrough 2014 series “Lakes and Reservoirs,” for which he processed idyllic “calendar-ready” photographs of lakes and reservoirs using liquid drawn from the bodies of water they depicted. The result was a series of landscape images with bright, hallucinatory colors and shapes, a physical record of the interaction between the photographic prints and their subjects. Both that project and “Silver” explore tensions between the “real” and the reproduction, and both move beyond the image and present the print itself as an art object.

Visually, “Silver” is very different from “Lakes and Reservoirs,” but Brandt points out that both projects approach the medium in similar ways. He sets out to take really technical, travel-brochure-ready photographs of nature, only to warp and obscure them. “There is an element of self-effacement there, and because the silver solution I make is applied as a liquid, there is this thread of liquefying photography there,” he explains.

Brandt began to hone his interests when he moved back to Los Angeles after graduating from Cooper Union and, freed from a tiny New York studio, started “getting physical” with the medium. “I’ve always been interested in the conceptual uses of photography,” Brandt says. “I studied under a lot of conceptual artists at Cooper Union but it wasn’t until the space of LA that I was able to open up, and explore the material aspects of photography.”

“AgXID12A” from Matthew Brandt’s “Silver” series. Courtesy of Matthew Brandt

He made portraits, then printed them on handmade paper that incorporated the subject’s bodily fluids. He printed pictures of bees on an emulsion of the finely crushed insects. He used salvaged Chinese circuit boards to wire cityscapes of Hunan with electrical current. He asserts that the medium is as important to his photographs as the images themselves.

“Silver” builds on the foundations of previous work to ask new questions. His moment of self-reflection in the Idyllwild forest is bent into something more literal, while the viewer becomes part of the photograph, or vice versa, in a sly manipulation of our perception. “That duality; looking at the forest and then seeing yourself,” Brandt trails off for a moment, before finishing, “that’s really important to the piece.”

As chance would have it, at the time of his introspective experience in the Idyllwild forest, Brandt had already begun working with precious metals. Inspired by an aerial view of vast mining pits as he flew into Cape Town, South Africa early in 2017, he started working with gold but switched to silver, which was cheaper and more photogenic. In addition, Brandt had been mulling over ideas about making silver gelatin prints, intrigued by the process’s pivotal place in the history of photography.

“I was already using silver, trying to make mirrors, and the two projects just coincided. Photography and the idea of reflection has always been very interesting to me,” Brandt says. “Mirrors are made of silver, and so are black-and-white photographs, so I knew there was something interesting [there].”

A lot of painstaking work goes into creating each of the “Silver” prints. Brandt travels through forests with his Canon 5DS, looking for trees. There are no specific criteria for choosing a tree, he just waits for something to catch his eye, and often looks for shots that have “a bit of the sky.” When shooting the trees, he takes an “architectural” approach, seeking the most technically sound representation of the tree structure. Each of the final images is made up of around 50 individual close-up plates of the tree, which are then stitched together in post-production. Brandt uses his Epson to print a digital negative, then sandwiches the negative in glass and makes a contact print before developing it in huge trays—trays which he makes himself. He then washes the print and mounts it on aluminum sheeting. From there, the multilayered “silvering” process begins; the piece is sprayed with a heavy industrial clear coat that renders its surface “glossy,” over which a tinning solution is applied to give the silver something to stick to, then layers of silver are applied, before he seals it with a protective coating.

Working on a project involving large prints mounted on aluminum and covered in precious metals can be quite expensive. Brandt credits his long-standing relationship with M+B Gallery with helping to defray the costs, as well as providing him with a space to create without fear. As he laughingly points out, their first collaboration was an exhibit of prints that electro-shocked anyone who touched them [“Two Ships Passing,” 2011]. Since then, he’s continued to push the physical boundaries of photography.

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