© 2020 by Alison Darrow.

“Photoshop brut”

February 18, 2016

I’ve always worked mostly with or from photos, but I didn’t have many of the options available today for playing with them. In the early 1980s, Photoshop did not exist, and color Xerox was a new technology, fairly primitive by today’s standards: it used fewer toner gradations than copiers use today and was therefore not capable of reproducing subtly colored originals precisely. This quirk became obvious the first time I had some work copied, but rather than seeing it as a shortcoming, I saw it as an opportunity to experiment. Once I got over my initial dismay at not getting precise reproductions of my work, I began to think of ways to exploit this oddity. At the time I was working with colored markers on paper, and I often found myself preferring the back side of the paper, where the colors bled through, to the front. To mimic this effect, I experimented with painting over water-soluble marker with white paint: the marker bled though the paint, creating a “painterly” effect.


Copying color work on a color Xerox machine tended to drop out any pastel shades, producing startling differences from the original -- not always for the better, but often evoking a completely different mood, and sometimes more interesting to my eye than the original.




A very talented photographer (the subject of the next image below) saw some of this work and suggested that we collaborate. These portraits and several others resulted.





The largest size paper available to me in commercial shops was standard legal (8.5” x 14”). Although I knew of at least one artist who was creating much larger color copies, she had access to a large-format copier – access I lacked. So, to create the 16” x 24” works shown here, I was obliged to piece four sheets of legal paper together. I began with my photographer friend’s black-and-white photo, copying all four corners to ensure that I captured the whole image. The relative dimensions of the paper meant that these images overlapped. I hand-colored each piece with markers, pastels, paint, inks, and other materials, then copied it in color. If I didn’t like the resulting image, I might recolor it or use a painted transparent overlay to tweak further copies. Given the vagaries of the technology, the exposure and therefore the colors varied, even the colors of the same parts of the image. I cut away the parts of each quarter I liked least and collaged the rest together. These photos illustrate this process (unfortunately I no longer have a copy of the black and white original):



Painted black-and-white photocopy of original photo
























Color overlay


Two different versions of the  same eye
























Final color Xerox



One question I was often asked about this work at the time – would it last? – has been answered by the intervening years. It has lasted for roughly 30 years without any perceptible changes, which doesn’t surprise me considering that the “pigments” consist of colored plastic powders heat-fused to paper. Although these pieces have been exposed to UV light only rarely, works on paper typically require protection from UV light, so I’m confident that these pieces will endure. The paper seems stable, but I don’t believe that archival copier paper was available at the time. I’m strongly considering an experiment with my least-favorite piece: if I can free it from its mattboard backing, I plan to try using heat or solvents to transfer the image to a paper I know to be archival. Fingers crossed!


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