Shahrzad Kamel’s Minimal IllusionsJanuary 7, 2015
Underneath the darkroom’s glowing red light, Workspace resident Shahrzad Kamel quietly presses a sheet of photographic paper with a squeegee to drain it of liquid. The exposed prints curl, revealing black and white blocks, curiously absent of photographic detail.
“When we look at photo paper, we’re so used to seeing every inch of the photograph and the paper covered with some kind of information,” Shahrzad says. “That’s what the photograph always has—it’s full of information.”
Working in WSW’s darkroom, Shahrzad creates minimalist black-and-white photograms that engage with an alternative practice of photography—one rooted in materials and process, rather than the representation of the external world. Her newest prints arise from an essentialist urge to return to the basic components of analog photography, inspired by Shahrzad’s fascination with visual perception and illusion.
“When I started working in this way, about a year ago, it was very much about limiting myself to photo paper and photo chemicals, and that was it,” Shahrzad says. “It was about alchemy in a way, and just about the paper and light sensitivity.”
Moving to Istanbul after her undergraduate degree, Shahrzad first encountered the medium through black and white street photography and Magnum-style photojournalism. After photographing through Afghanistan and Iran, her desire for an expanded education soon led her to the States, where her work shifted drastically as Shahrzad entered graduate school.
“I got tired of taking photographs,” she says. “It was maybe from looking and looking and looking at so many photographs, and also being exposed to other types of art and photography in my MFA program, that I realized there are so many other paths that seemed more interesting to me.”
Shahrzad soon found that Instagram and smartphone cameras replaced her cumbersome medium-format Rolleiflex. Eliminating the camera all together, she then began working directly with photographic paper and chemicals. “Because of the materials I’ve been using, I’ve become more interested in perception and optical illusions as well,” Shahrzad says, explaining how she became obsessed with the moiré pattern.
Originally coined by Swiss photographer Ernst Moiré, the moiré pattern is a visual phenomenon discussed across mathematics, science, and art. It occurs in two different scenarios: when two identical patterns are overlapped while slightly askew; and when a highly detailed pattern is photographed or displayed at a resolution that can’t capture the entirety of its detail. Both cause pulsing, wave-like artificial patterns to appear.
“That happens sometimes with my photograms,” Shahrzad says, pointing to one print with narrow stripes of white alternating with strips of pattern. “See how it pulses?”
Shahrzad’s photograms are photographic prints made from objects placed directly on light-sensitive paper. Using rectangular pieces of bookboard, large deer netting, and gridded vinyl window decals, she composes each print intuitively in the darkroom before exposing them.
The overlapping grids create a visual space both stark and otherworldly. Across a dense gridded field, one photogram seems to twinkle. In another, the netting fades softly into space, framed by white and black gradients. Others confront the viewer with a striking field of white, black lines and blocks of repetitive grid-like patterns punctuating the large empty spaces.The photograms transcend the trope of visual illusion, playing with perception and the viewer’s expectation of photography as a representational medium. Their graphic compositions recall minimalist paintings, a strong point of influence in Shahrzad’s work that sometimes causes her to question the importance of its photographic medium. “I look at painting way more than I look at photography,” she confesses. “But I’m a photographer, not a painter… I’m thinking now, Are these works about photography or perception? Do they need to be photograms?”
It’s a period of experimentation that’s just starting, as Shahrzad returns to her NYC studio with about a hundred prints she’s made over the last three weeks. “This is the beginning of a long path in a completely different way of working within the same medium,” she says. “I feel that there’s so much more possibility.”
Shahrzad Kamel is a NYC-based photographer, whose practice has been richly informed by working with Magnum Photos and photographer Bruce Davidson. She received her MA in Media from New York University and MFA in Photography from the School of Visual Arts. Shahrzad also writes for the online photography publication American Suburb X. Find her work at www.shahrzadkamel.com and on instagram @shahrzad_1001.