A Conversation with Wally Gilbert

Jan Kubasiewicz
When did you start taking pictures?

Wally Gilbert
I had some early experience in wet black-and-white photography as a child. I was taking pictures and developing my own film, printing, and enlarging, but it did not continue into my adult life.

My experience with digital photography started by my carrying a digital camera and taking pictures while traveling. But the pictures lived only in the computer or on the computer screen. A few years ago, almost by accident, I realized that I could print relatively large, high-quality images, up to 13 by 19 inches, on an inkjet printer. I realized then that I could make striking large images, such as 20 by 30 inch Iris prints, that look very good, even though I had been told that that was impossible, considering the low-resolution cameras I was using.

My next step was to experiment with sending image files to external photographic printing shops and to explore different papers and still larger sizes, up to four by six feet. I discovered that these very large images have novel qualities and great presence. They are beautiful. They have an impact on other people. From that time I started making images more seriously.

A digital file can be reproduced as a perfect copy of the original, but a printed image is a unique representation. How do you reconcile this in your work?

I think of my work as printed images. There is an interesting confusion as to whether or not digital photographs are multiples or unique objects. I often think of the images I print myself, on a thirteen by nineteen inch inkjet printer, as being in editions of twenty-five, although I do not print all twenty-five prints at one time. When, after some time, I go back to reproduce prints, they come out little differently than did the original. That will be a problem for collectors, of course.

In the process of printing, the interpretation of the colors and intensities depends on specific algorithms within the hardware and software, which varies from machine to machine. When I print at a distance, by sending files to an external place to print on a photographic substrate, and at a different scale, that creates even a bigger challenge in getting the colors I want.

Please, describe your process of making images.

I travel around the world carrying the camera in my pocket. When I see something, which strikes me as interesting — a scene, a tree bark, a building — I make an image of it. Composing the image on the screen of the camera is an essential part of this process, and the majority of the images I make are framed in the camera.

Then I take the image into the computer. I work now with 4-mega-pixel cameras (I used to work with 2-mega-pixel cameras) so in order to make large prints I amplify the image by interpolating enough extra pixels. I almost always correct or sharpen the color, through various color editing menus, usually I just increase the color contrast, but sometimes I play extensively with the color space and freely change the output intensities. I often sharpen the image using the unsharp mask, which is a standard photographic technique, invented for film processing, to increase the contrast across edges. In my case, I use a computer version of the unsharp mask filter in Photoshop. (The image has already been sharpened inside the camera at the beginning.) Then the file is processed further by sent to the printer to be executed eventually by applying ink to paper or light to photographic paper.

Because I work with large digital images made from small digital cameras, the images are not extremely sharp. On large-scale prints this softness is not immediately visible, but if one examines the image at a close distance, one sees that the edges are rather soft, straight lines are not perfectly straight, and so on. This effect can create interesting textures in parts of image which otherwise would be of flat color. I use these by-products of the technological process in a number of ways in creating a final image.

Some of those effects are accidental, I assume. How open are you to accepting accidents in your creative process?

Much of the world operates on a principle of accident. In many ways the artistic process includes random elements. This is very evident in number of printing processes, (not exactly the ones I use), monotype for example, that rely on accidental effects achieved in pressing inks against paper.

I do think that accident is a large part of the artistic process. One observes a random world and chooses elements that one considers of aesthetic value. The artistry is in the choice of the final object rather than in the total control of the process. The artist often creates strategies to promote accidents and thus to enhance the random elements during the process, followed by choice. In my case, this is often making computer do what one did not expect it to do.

Some of my work is a result of extensive mathematical transformations of the pixel structure. By applying computational algorithms the shapes in the image may be wildly transformed. In addition the color transformations can be extreme. I can control the colors independently from the intensities. Of course I could record each step of the transformation, and remember the specific application of certain algorithms, to repeat the process on a different image. However, I often do this as a novel experiment on a new image.

One reaction to this description might be, that there is no natural color at the end of the process…

Or, that the image is not natural image — as is often attributed to photography. And that is true and false. There are no natural colors. The camera always re-interprets color. In the digital camera there is a white balance process and there is a sharpening process, even before one gets an image out. And the camera processes color differently from the ways our eyes work. Then there is a further problem with color in comparing the image on a computer monitor with the final print.

The issues of color perception are fascinating too. Each person processes color a little differently. It is not true that we process color just in terms of the response of three pigments. Edwin Land and David Hubel and Torstein Wiesel, who extensively experimented in the field of visual perception, showed that all visual processing is much more complicated than one believed. The visual image is dissected into lines, edges, and color contrasts. Intensities and motions are separated out and carried by separate pathways. Our brain actually creates all the colors by looking at the color contrasts across the edges in the visual scene. I enjoy strong, saturated colors, so I work the system — the computer and the printer — in order to achieve those intense colors. In some cases, I remap the colors entirely differently from their values in the original image.

Let me return to the very moment of framing an image in the camera, when you “see something, which strikes you as interesting.” What is it? How do you actually choose objects to photograph?

That is a difficult question, because I do not think the process is anything one can analyze fruitfully. I do not think that it is a rational process of choice. It is a felt, not an intellectual process. If I were to try to describe it, I would be at a loss. I never formalize it to myself during the act of finding an image in the camera. This is similar to walking, as opposed to thinking how the legs work. It is something you do naturally.

Let me talk about the series of scanned images in the show. In putting a vegetable on a flat-bed scanner, I play until I find something, an image, that is interesting. Or, something “of aesthetic value.” Or, something “beautiful”, and that may include ugly. And I know that you are interested in what it is. You are interested in how I determine aesthetic value. Frankly, I am not sure, and that is why I am struggling with this question.

Your photographs, although taken in various locations and times, can be grouped into themes: architectural motives, tree bark textures, machines, and so forth. Do you intentionally focus on certain visual characteristics or topics? Or, is that an a posteriori grouping?

Sometimes when I photograph, I take a lot of pictures. One cannot run out of film if one uses large memory cards – one has this endless capacity to take photographs. And so they often become a series.

However, I often return to underlying themes. I took pictures of graffiti in Berlin and again, a month later, in Spain. I was not looking for graffiti as such, but looking for little color elements in painted patterns. This created a group of 40 to 50 images of elements of paint, including fragments from pictures in museums. I was looking for elements of shape and color, contrast in textures, only rarely painted symbols, like question marks, which had meaning in themselves.

I took photographs of tree bark in the backyard of our house and again, a few months later, on a trip to Utah. But in that bark series, within texture and color contrasts, one might see shapes that remind one of other things. So the meaning of the imagery is a question to be completed by others, keying off of some common curiosity. If you ask me what next? I do not expect to continue the series of current themes but to go on to do something else.

Over the years, your interests span mineralogy, astronomy, chemistry, biology, mathematics, and theoretical physics – virtually, the entire foundation of science. What skills, acquired in your professional life as a scientist, contributed to becoming a photographer?

Indeed, in my professional career, I worked in the large number of fields of science. First I was a theoretical physicist, very close to pure mathematics, and then later I became an experimental scientist working in biochemistry in a biological laboratory. Then I became more of a computer scientist, doing computer based analysis of genes, going back — after 30 years of laboratory work in molecular biology — to my roots as theoretician.

I have both types of skills — the intellectual skill needed in mathematics and theory and the manual dexterity needed to work with one’s hands in the laboratory. My personal history of experimental activities might have directed me to painting or to sculpture, to use my hands. But the tool of my later theoretical research was the computer, and that is why I feel so comfortable with digital photography.

I noticed that very often you draw to explain things. You always carry a pen not only a camera. How important is visualization in your thinking process?

Everybody’s thinking is a little bit different. There are those who think almost entirely with words, and they cannot conceive that one might not think in words. And there are those who think almost entirely in images, and have great trouble dealing with words.

Many visual artists have difficulty in describing in words what they do and perhaps there is no reason to use words to describe the process if the visual arts. I have a very large visual sense. For me it seems easier sometimes to visualize than to put the idea into words. In my scientific life, I often would think of experiments in terms of the curves, the graphs, that would describe the results.

In your unique position of being both an artist and a scientist, can you point to any similarities or differences between science and art, in terms of the creative process, visual thinking, or aesthetics that characterize the visual domain?

I was an active scientist for much of my intellectual life. For me, science itself has a very large creative element. I think that there are deep similarities in terms of the individual’s approach to creativity between the scientists and the artists. As a creative scientist, the science that one does and the ways which one talks about the science are aspects of self-expression, just as artistic creativity is the self-expression of an artist.

There is an aesthetic value in science. Scientific experiments are almost always presented in the form of a visualization in which aesthetic values play an important role in the ease and effectiveness of the communication. In the theoretical sciences – mathematics and theoretical physics – there is an aesthetic component both to the visual presentation of the material and to the underlying ideas. One speaks of theoretical concepts as ideas that strike one as simple, elegant, and beautiful.

There is a difference between the creative element in science and art, in terms of social structure of the fields. Science is a field of values that require socially agreed upon approaches to knowledge. An experiment or a result is not what a single person does. It is something that I do first, but that someone else must be able to reproduce. That reproduction, which leads to social agreement on “truth” is the core of science.

Art is different. In art a critical value lies in an underlying personal uniqueness of the artists vision. The object is valued because it involves a unique way of seeing the world. Of course there are social constraints as to what will be accepted as “good” art — but this is a commercial element, not an element of intrinsic value in the work.

Science, both experiment and theory, is valued because someone else can work with the results, reproduce and reason with the arguments. That is a tremendous constraint. There are constraints in art as well. The sculptor working with stone has tremendous constraints, or restrictions, as to what they can do with the material. Photography has the constraints in terms of sharpness of the image, the range of surface textures arising from work on paper, the gamut of color or black and white, and so forth. These constraints are not of the same nature as the social constraints of science.

Your photographs often record minuscule fragments of large objects and document things in state of decay. Do I sense correctly that you have an appreciation of things impermanent, fragmented, and decaying in time?

Photography relates to time by capturing a moment. It has great immediacy through the fact that the camera captures an instant, both in time and space. The picture is also a fragment of a whole; it is always a partial representation. In my case, I often focus on the small — a few square inches blown up to a 4 by 6 foot print.

When we perceive, our minds create a sense of the whole beyond the fragment of the world that we observe. We have that element in photography. The image suggests in the mind things beyond that instant and that fragment. Moreover, a large part of the aesthetic value I find in art is buried in a fragmentation of — and the irregularities in — the object, as opposed to balance, perfection, or order. The visual signs of decay I find pleasing — and they stimulate the mind to create an image of the past — to go beyond the simple appreciation of the present.

In another part of my life, I collect antiquities — ancient cups, fragments of pottery, fragments of statues. In the 19th century collectors and museums would re-create (or restore) the entire object based on a single fragment. Their vision of an object had to be complete, intact. Today, museums exhibit the original fragment of a vase, a piece of a tile, the broken bronze. This allows us — since we must — to re-create in our minds the original vision of an artist. This mental image strikes us as the critical reality, however imperfect our interpretation might in fact be.

Contemporary artists take advantage of the same process, intentionally using fragments to represent the whole, forcing the viewer to complete the image and the message. This philosophy appeals to me as a collector. It appeals to me as an artist and a photographer as well.

© 2024 Jan Kubasiewicz

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