In a unique blend of media, artist Natalie Cheung’s works invite viewers into a myriad of “experiences through time and movement” captured on the surface of photosensitive paper and microplastic sculptures.
With images reminiscent of Rorschach tests, Cheung’s captivating ‘off-camera’ photo series made of lightleaving viewers confused but fascinated by the artist’s map-like aesthetic.
Cheung’s work is influenced by the natural world, as well as created by light, duration, and the chemistry of making a photographic print. made of light he deftly manages to wave while using the cyanotype technique.
“Cyanotype is the oldest form of photography;[…] it is the same process from which the first architectural drawings were made”. Cheung continues: “One of the works of Made of Light […] they are intermediaries. In intermediates, evaporation is my topic. The maps consider the incremental transformations facing our planet as climate change progresses. Rising temperatures around the world are forecast to make coastal areas dramatically wetter and inland areas drier. The title of each work indicates the hours it took for the water to evaporate completely, and what remains is an evaporation plane. The hourly titles pay homage to the clock (literally and figuratively) we have on our planet to reduce emissions and avoid the tipping point of climate change.” says Cheung, speaking with petapixel
Cheung comes from a mixed-middle background. At age 10, he received a Minolta 35mm film camera in the box from his uncle and fell in love with the discipline right then and there. She grew up as an avid user of film, Hasselblad and Rolleiflex favorites and was inspired by the album covers of bands like elves. especially theirs doolittle album cover,
“The photographs in that album were so textured and rusty and abandoned. So while other kids in my class were taking photos of their friends and normal things that teenagers would take photos of, I was taking photos of human teeth against crusty backgrounds,” she says.
While studying film photography during the height of the “digital revolution,” and when traditional photography was beginning to gravitate toward pixels, Cheung opted to venture into creating new work in the darkroom without the aid of film images.
“When the digital revolution in the world of photography took over a few years of my career, I began to think a lot about the essence of the medium: documenting a moment in time with light. I wondered why darkroom photographic processes were still relevant and how I could continue to use them in a contemporary context without my work seeming clinging to an outdated romanticism. This is the core idea behind all my work.” Cheung says.
Sticking to the basics of being a Crynotype, she was fully committed to a cameraless approach to her images.
“The inspiration for my cameraless photography has changed over the years. Each job looks very different from the last; even what the artwork is about changes. But the artwork always remains connected to the importance of the process woven into the concept and the random element of chance involved,” she says.
The conceptualization of his process is almost as abstract as the results of his works. In a controlled environment, Cheung uses slow-reacting blueprints to produce ink images with fascinating shapes, textures, and patterns. While some images resemble a kind of cartography complete with river deltas and signs of erosion, others simply invoke the artist’s calm and contemplative, aggressive or terrified “mood”.
“I think of my process as controlled experiments: there are elements of control and there are factors that I can play with to create a bit of chaos. I never know what exactly is going to happen. Sometimes the artwork is a flop and sometimes it’s wonderful and very exciting,” says Cheung.
The artist allows his mixtures to evaporate naturally, a process that he mimics while subtly commenting on the constant passage of time and the loss of water that defines humanity’s relationship with the climate crisis. The results are a brilliant fusion of media, art, and social commentary.
“I am always excited to see the result of a work of art. My work is not predictable: you can configure everything, but the image can be a dud… and there are a lot of duds. So when you get big, it’s magical. The process is so technical and labor-intensive that anything can go wrong during processing, so I feel very protective of the artwork until it dries and goes into storage.”
‘Cameraless photography’ has given Cheung an unconventional yet exciting form of installation and workplace.
“I don’t use much gear at all! I use jumbo darkroom pans, chemicals, lights, lots of nitrile gloves, and Ilford paper. I keep tagging Ilford in my Instagram posts but never got a nod. I’m sure they’re horrified at what I’m doing to their product.”
Without the traditional digital nuances, it’s tempting to see Cheung’s process and setup as a stripped-down form of photography, but life in a darkroom has proven challenging for the DC artist at times.
“Everything is a challenge! I like to do big art and I’m small so from cutting giant heavy paper rolls to post processing and file washing to figuring out who will help me move a 7 foot framed piece of art it’s all a challenge in different ways. . I use these huge trays in the darkroom and even move one of them, I think I did something weird and adjusted my shoulder once. On another occasion, the darkroom suddenly had no water pressure…it was hilarious to say the least. At the end of the day, I personally have to make this work of art and it is worth all the obstacles…and now I move my trays carefully.”
Comments on Cheung’s works have challenged and amused the photographer without a camera,
“If you’re an artist, you know that feedback varies a lot. Of course I love free stuff, but I value critical and thoughtful feedback more. Sometimes the most valuable feedback comes from the most unlikely people. I also secretly enjoy weird comments like, “This reminds me of the time I spilled laundry detergent” or “I’m confused but interested in this.” It’s like reading reviews on the internet. I know it’s wrong to be so funny, but I am!
Cheung is currently focusing on made of light exhibits at Morton Fine Art, and is busy envisioning future collaborations with artist Marimekko, or at least “a scientist with a powerful microscope.” In the future, she remains committed to trying out different mediums and evaluating the fruits of her labor.
“I just recently started working with big art and I’m kind of in love, so I want to keep exploring scale. I’ve also started doing my reclaimed sculptures (model island) so I want to see where I can go with them. It amazes me even how, after decades of being strictly a photographer, I just sat down and started carving a sculpture.”
To learn more about Cheung, be sure to check out his website and Instagram.
Image credit: All photos courtesy of Natalie Cheung