Since its development in the 19th century, photography has navigated the tensions between science and art, says Anna Wager, Clarence A. Davis ’48 Visual Arts Curator. Photographic works by artist John Opera exploring those tensions was on display in the Davis Gallery at Houghton House this fall, with a reception on Dec. 14. This exhibition was organized with Alysia Kaplan, assistant professor of art and architecture.
A photographer and educator, Opera is an assistant professor of art at the University at Buffalo and head of its photography program. He received his BFA at SUNY New Paltz and MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
“Opera is interested in 19th-century photographic processes,” says Wager, “particularly cyanotypes and anthotypes. These processes require patience, as chemicals, botanical ingredients, and the sun are used to develop negatives into photographs. Visitors viewed this physically involved process firsthand, as a series of anthotypes-in-progress develop from the sun’s exposure in the Davis Gallery.”
Opera’s most recent works are abstractions made using the cyanotype method, a process invented in 1842 by Sir John Herschel and often used to create blueprints. The final product is produced by exposing negatives or other objects placed on a light-sensitive base to ultraviolet light or daylight. The resulting print is usually a cyan blue in color, though Opera has coaxed other colors from his prints, often combining the prints with paint.
“[My] more recent cyanotype works arrive at images through liquid chemical processes that were discontinued early on in photography’s history, except to be repurposed in the 20th century for architectural blueprints and the language of schematics,” says Opera in his research statement. “The results are works that are certainly photographic, but possess an unusual visual quality that directly connects to their inherent chemical properties.”
“Opera’s work questions how we think about photography, by visually examining our relationship with nature, empirical thought and objectivity,” says Wager.
Opera has exhibited his work nationally, and his pieces are included in the permanent collections of the DePaul Museum of Art (Chicago), the Burchfield Penney Art Center (Buffalo) and the Museum of Contemporary Photography (Chicago), among other institutions. His body of work includes landscapes, abstractions and a series shot in Western New York inspired by the paintings of Charles Burchfield. He is represented by DOCUMENT Gallery in Chicago.