Challenging Notions of Contemporary Photography

Aug 20, 2014

For most of us photography is a permanent record, a memory captured forever. Community Voices producer Tanya Maus brings us a story about Dayton photographer Francis Shanberger who makes pictures that challenge our notions of contemporary photography.

Credit courtesy of Francis Shanberger

In Dayton’s Southpark neighborhood, Francis Shanberger creates large life-size images of pajama wear using an obscure photographic process that fades away over time called anthotyping. Anthotyping dates back to the 1840s, and very few people know how to do it. Shanberger calls the series, “The Somnambulists” or “sleepwalkers.” His work is vivid and even disconcerting: with brilliant magentas and rich lavenders, glowing golds and yellows, the pajamas almost appear to be floating or even dancing away from their backgrounds. I went to see Francis Shanberger’s studio and he showed me some of his work.

"So, these are some of the earlier ones, in fact this is probably the first large one I made. It’s a striped pajama top made with pokeberries which is these ah these dark purple berries that we get in the early fall. They’re toxic to eat unless you’re a bird and I coated this paper so that it was entirely fuscia and then I laid the garment on it and then exposed it.”

Shanberger puts the pajama-covered paper outside in full sun. Where the sunlight hits the paper, the pigment fades, where the pajama rests it blocks the light, leaving a photograph behind. This process may take several weeks or several months to complete.

“This yard effectively becomes an outdoor studio and I usually keep these in the garage until they’re ready to come out," says Shanberger. “So I’ll bring them outside and look at them."

The images of pajama pieces may be amusing or horrific depending on the viewer.

Knowing that these things have been pieces that somebody else has worn or moved on from or lost in some way it’s like the old horror movies where you would see the dancing piece of clothing and know that thing had no sort of form or body to it,” says Joel Whitaker, Head of Photography at the University of Dayton.

Shanberger’s project began as a memory of his parents.

"It’s a way of looking back," he says.  "There’s some nostalgia to that. You know, thinking about them watching the Tonight’s Show with Johnny Carson and drinking cocktails when we’d all gone to bed and they could quit being parents and get to be, you know, the two people that when they’d first met."

Over time the Somnambulists have changed from nostalgic images of single pajama tops and bottoms to unsettling combinations of male and female pajama-wear that Shanberger calls, "the cross dressers."

There’s a sense of I think a life that’s absent in that they feel a little bit like a death mask of some sort," says Tracy Longley-Cook, professor of photography at Wright State University. "Obviously it’s clothing and not of the face, but I think in the absence of the actual body almost feels ghostly and a little dark, a little creepy even though the colors don’t necessarily lend themselves to a very creepy feel."

Few artists would choose to work with the anthotype method. It’s not only a painstakingly slow process, but the plant pigments, and therefore the image itself when left in the light, eventually fade away to nothing.

“So here’s the green grass one," says Shanberger, showing me another piece in his studio.  "And this is and here’s where it gets a little sad. This was all made from bags of cut grass that I collected in 2011. I actually hammered clumps of cut grass into the paper and it was a beautiful dark green color and I had a pajama top that was the image that resulted from it. And you can still see it but it’s all mostly brown now.”

Shanberger’s work creates a sense of absence and loss and this is accentuated by the fading of his photographs.

There’s a certain beauty in that and then a certain sadness I find at the same time. But that’s what I guess sort of this particular type of record is for that we can sort of see these different stages of it, and how beautiful it is the piece actually goes through its own kind of death, its own kind of disappearance a moving away from its original state," says Longley-Cook.

As an artist it takes courage to create work that fades, but perhaps the lasting value of Shanberger’s images is not as art that is readily bought and sold in a marketplace, but in its ability to remind viewers of the peculiar and ephemeral nature of their lives.