“The whole point is making things which are different from what people have seen digitally,” says Jack Davison of his meditative new series Photographic Etchings, which is on show now in London
“I’ve never been a darkroom kid,” says British photographer Jack Davison. “I tried, [but] it just didn’t appeal to me.” With a new solo exhibition, Photographic Etchings, opening in north London’s Cob Gallery, Davison is instead reflecting on the tactile wonders and alchemical magic of photogravure, a labour-intensive, high-cost alternative to the darkroom that lies at the heart of this exhibition. “I see it as similar to gardening in some ways,” he explains. “There’s something about the physicality of the work and having dirty hands that I really like. It’s a very meditative process that allows you to play with these images but not overthink them.”
Having previously balanced his self-taught photography with working full-time on building sites in his native Essex, Davison is no stranger to hard graft and it’s therefore no surprise to hear him extol the virtues of creating images this way. “I like being involved physically, but on set it can be more mentally exhausting. Often my favourite part of the day – if it’s gone well – is packing down. Just carrying the stuff and doing all the laborious work really helps the head.”
Evidence of that labour runs through each of the 33 works on show. Grouped by scale across three rooms and spanning some 14 years (almost half the artist’s life), they are a thrilling reminder of the medium’s ability to defy and confound, combining references to Surrealist greats like Man Ray and Max Ernst with Davison’s signature commitment to playful experimentation. Featuring photographs from some of his best-known series of recent years, including his career-launching US road trip series 26 States, the show grants new life to old work without giving the appearance of anything contemporary.
“I love the idea that these photographs could be discovered in the future and people would find them hard to place [in time],” says Davison. “The whole point is making things which are different from what people have seen digitally.” To hear him discuss his approach to image-making is to be pulled free from the daily, Instagram-fuelled idea of photographs as flat, scrollable pixels. Davison thinks of photographs in terms of depth, layers and texture. To him, they are sculptural, multi-dimensional objects; canvases to play with and experiment, whose physical and haptic qualities are as important as any other. The resulting works are best described as feats in optical gymnastics, conjured from a range of technical innovations, which Davison is (understandably) reluctant to reveal. “I love for there to be a sense of mystery,” he says. “I want people to look at these images and think, ‘I’m not sure how he’s done this.’”
For this exhibition however, Davison spent three years learning the craft of photogravure in order to open up new grounds for experimentation. Working in collaboration with Colin Gale, co-founder of Brixton-based studio Artichoke Print Workshop, Davison honed a gestural use of chiaroscuro more akin to a painter’s brush strokes. “I’ve always drawn – and I’ve always loved that loads of photographers are just failed painters,” he laughs. “With this process, you completely cover the etched plate with black ink. Then you rub in the ink a second time and begin to reveal the image. You can choose to rub it completely clean but you can also leave ink in certain areas you want darker. Because you're using a rag, you can have a heavier hand, so you can make it more painterly by brushing less ink away or brushing in a certain way.”
“It’s kind of that magic of old Polaroid – you don’t know if what you’ve done will work. You’ve chosen images you think will respond to the process, but there’s still that little ‘tada!’ as the magician’s cloak comes up and you reveal the print.”
These are the risks and moments of uncertainty that Davison feels obliged to take on, and which for us, the viewer, create a spectacle that lives long in the mind. “For me, photography is about pushing into different spaces and trying new things,” says Davison. “I’m a white cis het male and if I’m going to try and be in a space that’s viewed, I need to be trying to say something interesting rather than just repeating stuff or taking up someone else’s space.”
Photographic Etchings by Jack Davison is on at Cob Gallery in London until 12 November 2022.