Self-reference in art takes... delicacy. Turn the gaze around and you can quickly wind up with work that feels like endless MFA show self-portraits of the young artist as a young artist. Rising to the challenge, Canadian photographer Michel Campeau has documented the declining use of darkrooms in our increasingly digital world for over a decade. More than a nostalgic look at methods fading from fashion, Campeau's work highlights the notion of obsolescence and the role of technology in changing the meaning and function of art.
These photos capture a clear sense of decay and a startling variety in working environments. Their weight comes from the our historical remove as viewers: Despite photography's ubiquity, the writing has been on the wall long enough that we've cleaned it up and moved on. The darkroom as a space for creating is no longer necessary. As fitting evidence, Campeau's own work is almost entirely done with a digital point and shoot.
To explore the importance of this changing landscape, Campeau draws heavily on Walter Benjamin's seminal essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (it is unofficially mandatory to refer to this essay as "seminal"—negligence on this point may lead to expulsion from the Frankfurt School). And you should too, if you're interested in the power of pop culture or the foreboding commentary of a social critic who predicted the dangerously successful use of mass media by the Fascists.
It's important to remember that, once adapted for common use, photography was itself a culturally titanic technology, permanently shifting expectations about communication, representation, truth, and (perhaps less obviously) the meaning of art. Maybe it's easier to see when you work in a technically involved medium, maybe you have to have a liberal arts background, but mechanization (now digitization) is deeply linked to the valuation of creative products. A key concern in this relationship is the increased distancing the means of production from the producer. Need an example? You can buy $10 paper reproductions of paintings that took years to complete, requiring very little capital or consideration from the consumer.
Photography, was (and is) a revolutionary tool of permanence, record-making, and reproducibility. Its popularization signaled a large step away from the privilege and singularity inherent to traditional premodern artworks. However, for a few generations the darkened rooms and silver gelatin paper held some of the deep unknowable-ness of other arts performed by seasoned professionals. As such, Campeau's work doesn't shy away from the alchemical vibe of the traditional photographic process. In a way that's what this morbid collection is all about: the dying of an older form of (technical) magic. The continued dispersal of "Aura" from the creation of art.
The book of haunting prints is due out in glossy art book form next March—available for pre-order now. You can read an interview with the artist here.