A Prolegomenon for Gum Printers and Other Visual Alchemists: Suddenly Vertigo

Writer and photography / Peter J. Blackburn

Peter J. Blackburn discusses the ongoing personal challenges some artists experience throughout the course of their career. This essay is part two of a continuing series. Your responses are appreciated!

Prolegomenon: prefatory remarks ; specif: a formal essay or critical discussion serving to introduce and interpret. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary

For the first time in my memory I did the improbable. I stopped printing. With the snap of a finger and two shakes of a lamb’s tail, I simply stopped printing. Gone went the gum and—poof—went the paper. That, my friend, was more than three months ago. There I stood washing a fairly large diptych in the sink—a monochrome pair, in fact, which is somewhat a rare occurrence in my mostly tricolor practice. As I watched the bits of unexposed black pigment detach from the paper and float down the drain, like I’ve witnessed thousands of times before, a sudden unexplainable feeling—more like a sweeping impulse, a kind of vertigo—overcame me within the course of a few moments. I simply couldn’t wait to finish the print and put it away—all away—far, far away. In a manner of speaking, I pitched all my images and materials back in the vault, swung the huge, heavy door closed, gave the combination tumbler a quick spin ‘round the dial, and walked away with a tremendous, quite audible sigh of relief.

Storm Drain Grate (diptych), Dallas, 2011. I found it amusing that ‘vertigo' should strike during the washing of this particular gum print.

Wait. Actually, if truth be told, the experience could more accurately be described as tossing all the stuff in the back of a car trunk, releasing the handbrake, and shoving the wretched behemoth over a dark abyss. There now. That’s the picture, all right.

Are you surprised? I was. Still am. Well, sort of.

My usual custom is to break from printing during the winter when cold weather and limited UV opportunity make sun exposures uninviting. But this most recent abandonment of my practice began in July, one of four prime printing months when I usually expect to produce dozens of tricolor images each week. I have always printed each and every summer without fail. To simply lock it all up—out of sight, out of mind and forget about it all—was highly irregular and quite baffling, indeed.

Our prolegomenon series began by asking the question why. Why do you create? Your responses were thoughtful, provocative, and very much appreciated. Now, I move further along to the questions of why and how do you continue to create? How do you respond to diminished energy levels, distractions, fatigue, jaded vision, lackluster performance, jumbled ideas, creative confusion—and burnout? Will you be just as thrilled and just as fulfilled when print number ten thousand is in the wash as when you rinsed that very first one way back when? Why do you keep going? And what happens when, like me, you hit the wall—when just the mere sight of a brush, a tube of pigment, even a camera, precipitates a bout of churning nausea.

Sometimes an artist will plod along in work and activity until a complete exhaustion forces an abrupt end. Others take a long trip to other lands in a concerted effort clear their palates. And there are those who renew their strength through conversation and interaction with fellow creative colleagues on a regular basis. I know one photographer who insists on scheduling moments of silence and isolation to keep his creative energy rejuvenated.

Having no time for a breakdown, and little funds for a trip abroad, I chose to deal with my rogue inclination to cease all printing at once and until further notice by simply using the rest of the summer to enjoy other areas of interest, reading being one of them. While at the library the very next day my eye caught a display book featuring a biography of Alfred Hitchcock. A long admirer of his films, I snatched the book off the shelf along with a few pertinent movies and spent some time exploring the creative mindset and methods of this most enigmatic phantom of cinema suspense.

From Blackmail and Sabotage to Rear Window and Family Plot, I devoured one masterful piece after another. Several were viewed more than once. As a color gum printer, I am drawn to early Technicolor and love the splendid hues in Rope, Dial M for Murder, and Vertigo. Still, I gained a new appreciation of black and white though Strangers on a Train and the original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. It would take little effort to peel off several quick paragraphs relating to you how the delightful imagery and thought-provoking reading knocked around new ideas in my mind, how my vision was renewed and refreshed, and how the unexpected Saboteur of my summer printing agenda actually helped to create new goals and ignite fresh energy. Oh, that Bernard Hermann could have written a score for one of my gum series as he so aptly wrote for Mr. Hitchcock. I know—keep dreaming—but, boy, what a dream!

If you are just beginning your chosen alternative process or have been working at it for quite some time, I imagine seasons of lulls, detours, and crippling shutdowns will come your way. Perhaps one is just around the corner. Do you have a Lifeboat to uphold you though those times? Sustaining a long and consistent career is no Easy Virtue. Face it, printing in chrome, platinum, iron, and silver can, in the long haul, be Murder! —both when we get into a Frenzy over frustrating process issues, and when we find the will to go on with our work challenged, even short-circuited with a sudden case of Stage Fright.

Now it is your turn. Describe some of the circumstances which have driven you to become temporarily Psycho in your career. Have you experienced dry seasons, times when you felt like giving up, occasions where you questioned going on and considered throwing in the towel to pursue other interests? What are your sources of motivation, refreshment, and encouragement when the road gets bumpy and you find yourself at a dead end?

12 thoughts on “A Prolegomenon for Gum Printers and Other Visual Alchemists: Suddenly Vertigo”

  1. Hi Scott. Thank you for the follow-up. It’s nice to hear from a fellow NJ colleague. I was born and raised in NJ. Yes, distractions and life in general can get in the way of creativity. I do, as well, have natural down times such as every winter. That didn’t help this time. As I have been able to think about what has happened to me recently, I think I just needed to spend a summer doing a bit more of something else. It seems every summer I occupy my time printing and I found that the almost 12 weeks I ceased printing helped to refocus my mind. Happy to report, I am once again printing, but in a more measured manner.

  2. I’ve been thinking about this blog since you first posted it (and my initial response). I keep coming back to the realization that I don’t quit image-making, or creative endeavours (in general), but I do frequently get distracted by others. This habit of mine has kept me from reaching a point in which I WANT to put away a certain process. My life is broken up into seasons/phases in which, after each phase, I can’t continue with a specific process easily. Some frustration about not being able to continue exists, but I find myself exploring something new (or picking up an old process).

    Long story short… Peter, I don’t think that I have ever reached the point you bring up. I don’t seem to work on one process long enough. Even though there are several processes that I continue to revisit, I tend to work in bursts, so a natural down-time occurs without me having to reach a point of, let’s call it saturation.

    As an example, my photogravures were starting to look very nice this past Spring. I had two frantic weeks of nothing but experimentation to make sure the first half of my Grand Canyon suite was correct, and fully editioned. After that, I had to go from NJ to ME for work obligations. Now that I’m back in NJ, even with the second half of the suite planned, too much is in the way to get started just yet (press room occupied during the times I have available. I’m in the middle of moving, some minor work related stuff).

  3. After a third redundancy in my lifetime, I turned my back on the automotive Industry, instead I took on a degree course in photography. At fifty something I think even I questioned my own sanity and now even in my last year I still do, its disertation time!
    I went into this a digital shooter, returned to film, shooting 35mm, medium and large format. And finally Ive discovered the alternative processes, yes its humble and frustrating beginings for me. Lack of inspiration has, at least at this point, not been a problem, its been fueled by continuous reading something I never use to do.
    The Hitcock films were shown to us in the first year together with a series of lectures so it made me smile when you mentioned them.
    Anyway back to my reading list, and my frustrating task of trying to get an acceptable print form potassium-bichromate 🙂

  4. Hi Billy! Yes, I do remember our brief email encounter a few years back. Nice to hear you are back at it. Hmmm. You say a printing frenzy hit you late this past summer—about the time I lost mine. How odd! Enjoy your new-found energy!

  5. Susan—you mention Facebook. Do you find FB a help or hindrance in your work? I find it a tremendous distraction, but others seem to relish the time spent there. I would like to hear from others, if so inclined, how FB and the WWW in general contributes to your work or strains your creative health. Obviously, I have a presence here at AP, but I find the environment here “safe and nourishing.”

  6. Francis—funny you should mention sculpture. I couldn’t create a respectable sculpture if my life depended upon it. But, I regularly go to a fantastic venue here in Dallas, the Nasher Sculpture Center. It has both outdoor and indoor galleries where I can roam around or sit and think while engaging with some of the most incredible three dimensional works. I always receive much needed refreshment from sculpture and have produced many portfolios inspired by sculptural art. In fact, sculpture is the first source I turn to for fresh ideas and mental renewal.

    Now, as for always having something next do, that is precisely the issue which led me recently to walk away. You see, I am constantly printing, photographing, and preparing images for production. It’s been that way for 20 years. I am usually working on two to three different conceptual portfolios with a wide assortment of minor pieces at the same time. The images I print today were most likely conceived and prepared up to two years ago, with much more work ready and waiting in cue for future printing. If I stopped photographing now, I would not be finished printing what I have until at least 2016. That’s why in my case, I felt the need to stop, gain some altitude, and develop a bigger picture of my work. Sometimes, it is good to walk away, provided that walk will eventually lead you to a higher level of realization and achievement.

  7. Hey Peter

    This really does resonate. I am also a gum printer, I also live in DFW, and I have a sneaking suspicion we’ve exchanged a few e-mails in the past.

    For myself I began printing in 2003 knowing nothing. Over a period of 5 years I printed a lot in a learning phase and frenzy of gum, trying out new techniques on nearly every print. I was in a few group shows met many other artists sold many pieces. Then one day technical failures got the better of me. Part of solving the problems required money, and the other half was having to restructure the entire way I produced a print. It was daunting, and so in 2008 I just stopped printing. Since then I made maybe one print a year, telling myself I was going to get back into it but only with vague enthusiasm. Each new print plagued with problems left me uninspired. They could no longer offer what I wanted of them.

    My creativity had not ceased to be, my energies were directed into drawing, teaching, making video games with kids. All the while I was still shooting, stockpiling images to one day print in gum.

    Suddenly in the late half of summer 2011 I have burst forth in a new frenzy of printing. I already made several that I really enjoy, some waiting to be printed as far back as 2006. I’m currently working on printing large, and to find more techniques. It’s great to return on the other side where you can’t wait to print again. My enthusiasm was not lost on others and the first two prints I made this summer found themselves shown in the state capital building as part of a brief group show.

    As creative people we will always run into a wall, be it an external one or an internal one. Sometimes as an artist you begin making things you do not like. It’s part of the process, and I think from that frustration or disgust eventually can come new inspiration.

  8. I believe in work. One has to work. Keep working it out. Discipline. If you don’t want to make a photo, then make a sculpture. If you do not want to make a sculpture, then make a video. Learn something new to add to your processes. If you work in Gum, and you don’t want to make another, then perhaps try writing about it. Blog about it. Blog about your process, or about why you like this particular process; or like Mr. Blackburn, write a quizzical text.

    The best thing to keep me going is having the next thing to do. When I have major shows, I make sure to have a post show project started so that when the exhibit is over, I do not have any down time. It is the transitions and lull times that are the killers. Getting over the initial friction of starting up again is the hard part so I make sure to have a few projects going at one time.

  9. Thank you, Scott and Karen, for the wonderful expressions relating to your “struggle management.” It is so exciting to see the work of those who respond to these blogs (I enjoy seeing your links). I find encouragement and comfort from those who experience some of the same struggles as me and hearing how they are handled.

    Scott—your comments about eating and drinking too much sort of correlates to how we as artists can sometimes “eat” at our artistic endeavors to the point of where we get a “bellyache.” So, stepping away from it all is sometimes a good thing.

    Karen, how lovely to have cabin space dedicated for your work! I’m sure that kind of environment would lend itself very well to a more peaceful setting. It seems the means by which we all deal with distractions and burnouts are as diverse as the images we produce.

  10. Thank you for your comment, Peter and from the others…I had hoped this would happen on my FB but I guess people are “too busy”.
    Lately, I have been finding it hard to photograph especially since I was in the middle of assisting and teaching classes in WET Plate and Pt/Pd in Finland. During the classes i had many wonderful chances to meet my students and see their endeavours in other fields. That has given me ideas on what is important to them and it took me back to when I was studying fine arts whilst engaging in medical studies. My students inspired me because i saw many different ways of approaching art. They gave me hope to do things differently. The other teachers were equally as inspiring but the most inspiring person for me is ..me. I have to take the time to wander in my mind and begin to “see” again, whether with a camera or not…I have to shut out all the distractions of preparing for winter and begin to see the way my camera formats see… and now, I am happier because to “see” is to engage in life, to recover the passion I feel for the flawed world I live in.

  11. I bought a small cabin last year into which I promptly moved. I have always had my studio in my residence somehow, but my cabin is 14’x19′, and room to paint and print was just not gonna happen, so I built a studio. This of course took longer than I wanted it to, and is just being finished up now. So it has been a year without a studio space. Self imposed silence in my artistic endeavours. This is how I make a living so it has been hard on me. I suspect I will have a huge resurgence once I get everything up and running again! There are many ideas swimming in my head waiting for release!

  12. almost completely gave up visual art of any sort this summer. Work and other obligations left me worn out, and my grand plan to have my cake and eat it too did not pan out in the least, so I was left frustrated, waiting for the summer to end as I did my job, ate too much food, drank too much beer, watched too much television. It’s taken me until the past couple of weeks to get back on the horse. I don’t really have anything to keep me going through the down times. Frankly, I just crash in frustration and have to sulk for a while. But, I always come back. I don’t always come back to the same process (I have many suites of prints, series of paintings/drawings, that, given the time, could double in numbers), but I do always come back to picture-making of some sort.

    I think that the start of the school year, and my newer excitement for creating are related. Teaching others how to do something almost always makes me a bit more curious about the process, and typically leads right into a new piece of work or two (if not an entire series).

    I have a blog entry from almost exactly a year ago, that, had it been a different time of year (ie. not while school was in session) I might have been a bit less optimistic.

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