When I first saw Noelle Tan’s black and white photographs in her 2005 solo exhibition at the District of Columbia Art Center, I thought they were drawings. My momentary confusion was a startling experience; we’re more accustomed to drawing or painting that mimics the “realness” of photography. Tan reverses that equation. Starting with images of landscapes, she manipulates the exposure time in her silver gelatin prints to produce large areas of black or white negative space. The resulting inscrutable photographs lack the visual markers that would normally anchor the image to a specific time and place.
Despite this manipulation—which she exerts in her home-based studio in Hyattsville, Maryland—Tan says, “Photography always has that sense of the real. Even if the image is highly manipulated, there is the notion that it is something that has actually existed.” The process of printing her own photographs in her darkroom is a vital component of Tan’s practice. “There is something personal about darkroom work. And shooting film is a different creative process then shooting digital.”
When her work calls for a larger print size than her own darkroom allows, Tan drives to San Francisco to print at Rayko Photo Center, one of the few places in the country that still rents black and white darkrooms with large scale print capability. Tan loves cross-country trips and they are an important part of her new body of work. The new photos, which will be on view in Washington, DC at Civilian Art Projects in October, document the sites Tan visits over the course of her drives.
“Part of how I do my trips is I buy these guidebooks. And I just kind of read them. I don’t necessarily end up in all the places that I mark to go to but I find things on the way. I need a destination, but I don’t always get there all the time.”
Many of the sites Tan visits—the Biosphere 2 in Oracle, Arizona; the remains of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas; Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas; the Trinity nuclear test site in New Mexico—are associated with events ingrained in our collectives memories. Photographs from these sites are grouped with photographs from other, more anonymous places. An image of the Biosphere 2 might be paired with an image from a Wizard of Oz roadside attraction in Kansas. Some places may carry more historical significance, but for Tan every one of these places speaks to ideas about nostalgia, history, preservation, and a search for utopia.
There’s an implicit narrative at work in her new photographs, but Tan doesn’t necessarily want the viewer or herself to “know the whole story.” She has learned to trust her process. “There are all these things that seem disconnected but they’re clicking in my brain. So, I just have to trust the fact that it’s all going to pan out eventually. And it does. It makes sense in my head. It comes together and falls apart and comes together and falls apart over a couple of years and you just have to have faith that your ideas [are connected].”
It’s possible that Tan’s faith in her ideas came from surviving the graduate program at the California Institute of the Arts, a school famous for its emphasis on critical theory, which she left New York for in 2000. “I’m not even entirely sure how I got in,” says Tan. “My approach to applying to grad school was that I was going to be really honest in my artist statement and it would just be a match. I think my first sentence was, ‘I’m really not into theory.’ Sometimes it will help my thought process. But in general, I don‘t read theory and then make art.”
Tan speculates that a graduate program focused more on technical craft might have been a better fit, but “would not have been as much as a growing experience.” At Cal Arts, “you really learn how to think about your work in a critical way. Crits are hard. People cried. It was not a pleasant experience. The level at which you [are expected to] question your work is incredibly high.” Tears aside, Tan says, “My work would not have gotten to where it is without having gone to grad school. It was a combination of grad school and California, which was a total geographic shift.”
Tan experienced another shift when she turned 40 in December. It’s quite a thing,” she says, “It occurred to me that [turning 40] is a marker. [It’s] a time to think about where you’ve been and where you’re going. I’ve never…set specific career goals. My goals have been more like: Am I a good person? Am I a good daughter? Am I a good friend?”
For more on Noelle Tan visit Civilian Art Projects.
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