Revitalizing a century-old photographic process, David Cowles has spent the last fifteen years documenting vanishing architecture and artisanal traditions, reinterpreting art works of antiquity, and exploring the untapped potential of his nearly-obsolete medium to advance a modern aesthetic. In his choice of subject matter, as in his chosen means, the past is given new life: human history, art history, and the history of photography converge in images equally informed by the present.
In 1993 Cowles embarked on a project to document the end of a 2,500-year Jewish presence in North Africa, working with an 8 x 10 inch view camera and printing his negatives on printing-out paper (the same process Atget used to document Paris in the early 1900s.) His images of abandoned synagogues, shrines, and cemeteries in Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt stand as testament to a neglected historical narrative. They also constitute the last large-scale photographic documentation done in this medium: his materials were being discontinued even as his subject was disappearing.
On the heels of this project, Cowles began an aesthetic documentation of Islamic and Moroccan architecture, focusing on the skilled decorative traditions that arose from the injunction to make no graven images. Soon he felt a hunger for the figurative-an element missing from the Islamic visual repertoire. In small museums of the Arab world he began photographing Roman sculptures and mosaics, using the vocabulary of photography and the hindsight of a twentieth century eye to create new works of art based on old ones. Around the same time, chafing against the strictures of architectural photography, he sought a freer way of working with light, shape, and shadow. He found it in still life studies.
In these new genres, Cowles felt a need for multiple images to convey how he saw a subject. Exploring the wide tonal range of printing-out paper, he tapped into its expressive potential to give each individual print its own "voice", and eventually discovered a way to access the full range of shades in a single print by toning selectively with a brush. He has since begun to build large composites using multiple prints.
This exhibition traces a journey: from a historical documentation of Jewish sites in the Levant, to an aesthetic documentation of the context in which they existed; and from an eastern aesthetic tradition, back via antiquity to a western and contemporary one.
All photographs are gold toned gelatin chloride printing out prints.