One of the responses to Christopher Burkett’s photography — in addition to wonder and admiration — might be disbelief. Stand before Burkett’s “Glowing Winter Aspen, Colorado, 2000,” see the uncanny sense of depth in the landscape, the almost holographic way the aspen trees emerge from the surface, and it is reasonable to assume there is some high-tech trickery to the process: Certainly that image does not actually exist in nature, and if it did, how could I have missed it?
But Burkett, for reasons of aesthetics, habit, purity and the logistics of the materials he uses, avoids cutting-edge technology. His images are made the old-fashioned way, with materials and in a place that have become practically a foreign land to photographers: film and the darkroom. Burkett’s aim is not to baffle people but to illuminate the genuine experiences of life and emotion that are there for the viewer. He has found that the best way to do so is to keep his techniques as straightforward and as understandable as possible.
“I’m trying to show that there’s so much life and so much light in the world that we don’t experience. I want to show people these things really do exist in the world,” Burkett said from his studio in Milwaukee, Ore., just outside Portland. “That’s why I use film — there’s a literalness that ties you to the original scene.”
Burkett, who is in his early 60s and has a Santa Claus-ish appearance, doesn’t consider digital photography to be the devil; he has done some digital work himself. But since the advent of digital, there has been a change in perception of what photography is. We no longer see it as essentially a reflection of reality, of what the eye sees.
“Digital is so flexible, so malleable, there’s always a suspicion you’re being tricked. As soon as you enter the digital realm, it’s no longer believable,” said Burkett, who will be in attendance for today’s opening reception of his exhibition, “Colorado & Beyond,” at Valley Fine Art. “When you photograph something, you are trying to communicate a deep emotion. You want the viewer to experience what you’ve experienced. If you’re doing what I’m doing, trying to show something real, with depth and meaning, you don’t want it undercut by the believability of the medium.”
While Burkett’s commitment to film is deep, it doesn’t match his devotion to the material he prints with. More than three decades ago, after choosing to work in color photography rather than black-and-white — “I realized they were such different mediums, I had to focus on one,” he said — Burkett began working with Cibachrome, a printing process that he found provided unmatched luminosity, depth and subtlety in the contrasting tones. Burkett developed a painstaking but successful process of printing with Cibachrome, and he is reluctant to part ways with an approach he believes is so aesthetically satisfying. When the Swiss company Ilford discontinued Cibachrome a year and a half ago and then declared bankruptcy — Burkett noted that Cibachrome is widely seen as expensive, difficult and time-consuming — he stocked up. Burkett placed an order for 100,000 square feet of the material.
“A huge amount and a huge investment,” he said.
Burkett is now confronting another of Cibachrome’s qualities — it doesn’t last. Even while stored in his freezer warehouse, the material will change over time; Burkett believes his stock will deteriorate significantly in three or four years.
So Burkett has made the choice to spend the vast bulk of his time in the darkroom, printing on the Cibachrome while it lasts, rather than doing the work that most people associate with a landscape photographer. Burkett hasn’t been on a single extended photo trip in seven years (though he has done some one-day shoots). Ordering, receiving and storing the Cibachrome stock was a major undertaking; now he busies himself with printing the images he made on previous shoots (including his two favorite regions, Colorado/Utah and Appalachia). But Burkett was never one to put much emphasis on taking a lot of shots. He said there have been months when he made just 50 images, hoping to get a handful good enough to put in a gallery.
“I spend most of my time in my darkroom,” he said. “Cibachrome is a special material. The luminosity and depth, that’s what keeps me going with it. I don’t want to switch methods. I’ve been doing it a long time.”