There’s been a trend in portrait and fine art photography over the past several years that values digital manipulation over anything else in the image. So it was a welcome relief to walk into Sancho Gallery and spend some time with Samuel Partal’s new exhibition, Ars Lumina. Partal creates dramatic macro landscapes of small objects and sculptures that he manipulates himself. He shoots on a manual 35mm camera on slide film using a D.I.Y. macro rig. His work is full of brooding blood reds, dark purples, inky blacks, and faded yellows, with periodic splashes of dark blue and pale green, all made possible with equipment that represents the peak of analog technology from 30 years ago. And although Partal is a technological purist, his mission is forward-looking: the creation of images that have never been seen before. Materials re-appropriated from everyday life, an orange, a candle, a leaf, a discarded piece of glass, become the deepest part of the ocean, a dying tree, the surface of the sun, human flesh itself.
Partal’s instinct for materiality extends beyond the image: these are not just prints in frames, but are custom mounted on wood panels and covered with resin. Each photograph is like an oversized film slide. The presentation is distinctive, creating a continuous art object that seeks both to make the frame invisible and also set the image apart from its surroundings. Working with slide film, which is often presented sequentially in slide shows, also informs Partal’s sensibilities in organizing the work in the show: the opposing walls of the gallery each include a different series dealing with different philosophical and metaphorical conceits. In one corner of the gallery, a video Partal co-directed with Carrie Shreck is installed as a looping triptych- demonstrating the same techniques as his still photographs to describe the life and death of a star.
Partal is one of those artists who has self-taught knowledge of art history, a guy who can quickly point out relationships between Renaissance aesthetics, astronomy, science fiction, the Bible, and ancient Greek and Roman art. In Ars Lumina he has trained his lens on the smallest of objects in order to dwell upon the relationship between flesh, blood, perception, and spirit. This is really the purest measure of a photographer: the vision to depict the world back upon itself in a way it has never been seen before.
Ars Lumina will be at Sancho Gallery, 1549 West Susnet Boulevard 90026, until February 24.
Photographs by Samuel Partal