v4.7 / Ben Mahler, Ex Nihilo

Oil prints are magical. They have that something-out-of-nothing aura about them. Out of ash, out of shadow, out of void: an emergence. Then again, ex nihilo is photography’s specialty, its vernacular. Even the daguerreotype, the first fixed expression of the camera, arrived like “Athena,” writes photo historian John Wood, “full-blown into life—and as wise and mature at birth as it would ever be.”

Robert Demachy, The Crowd (1910), Oil Print, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949

The oil print, unlike the daguerreotype and many of its successors, emerges but never fully arrives. “The essence of Art consists in emphasis and suppression,” said Robert Demachy, perhaps the most famous of the French pictorialists. For him, the ability of oil to forestall the arrival of an image from its limbo of shadow and light made it an ideal printing technique. 

The process was (and continues to be) painstakingly slow and easily botched. But Demachy preferred oil’s prohibitive nature for the very same reason photographer Ben Mahler prefers it and for the very same reason most of us are instantly fascinated by it. The result disdains completion, like Joseph Stella’s industrial charcoals and Rodin’s roughhewn torsos. And in its disdain, it creates its own self-worth. Even now, there is nothing quite like it.

Ben Mahler (www.mahler.be) is a photographer and printmaker based in Antwerp. He spent much of his career printing in silver—a clearer, more precise communication of tone. But oil tempted both Mahler and Demachy away from likenesses too clearly communicated. Oil captures “something, not someone,” Mahler explains. A feeling instead of a fact. Though maybe the two aren’t mutually exclusive. When I look at Ben Mahler’s work, I see both. I feel both. Maybe it’s the carbon kinship between the image and myself. Maybe it’s that part of the image that is still arriving, saying hello to the impermanent viewer who (what choice does he have?) is always departing.

If so, hello.

I will tell a bit about the way I became specialized in oil printing. For thirty years I studied photography. The lessons were focused on analog silver printing, the Zone System (Ansel Adams), and on equipment. Strangely enough I can’t remember having lessons on the old photographic techniques. But I do remember we had a few lessons about the old masters.

Over the next decades I focused mainly on silver printing. Five years ago I took a course on carbon printing. In this workshop I discovered some oil prints made by the instructor. I immediately fell in love with this technique and saw the possibilities.

The teacher was not interested anymore in teaching oil printing. According to him it was too difficult, and too messy (cleaning the ink afterwards).

Soon I discovered Picto Benelux, a Brussels-based group of photographers with a special interest in historic photographic processes. There I met René Smets who discovered these techniques 40 years ago. He taught me the basic principles of oil printing.

I have been working hard for three years to rediscover this technique. In fact it’s quite simple: You need high quality watercolor, 100% cotton paper, gelatin, and ink. But it took many years to learn the inking technique and to find the right paper, right inks, gelatin dilutions and chemical products. Creating the right tools to pour the gelatin, to dry and rinse the matrix in a professional way, was a challenge too.

Over those years, I quickly found my own style. In fact oil printing is very basic, but if you master the inking technique, a lot of styles, tonalities, and atmospheres are possible. Learning oil printing was like beginning a new language, and I forgot my previous work, my “perfect” silver prints. I also have a fair amount of experience with digital printing.

My work feels like a time machine. I always loved the old, dark, melancholic pictures we all know. Russian artists are masters of it. But I never could give this the right place with the silver printing technique. The language is too different. But with the oil printing technique I can speak the same language as the old masters, like Steichen and Stieglitz.

My work now I call “particles in a time machine.” My models are not people, they are “members” (particles) of a certain, very limited, time frame, like we all are, in our short lives. They represent something, not someone. The representation is an atmosphere, an abstraction, an illusion, a projection. They represent mainly a feeling.

A few years ago, I bought an edition of Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Work. For me it felt like “coming home.” Like finding a love you wouldn’t expect to find. It’s still a kind of a bible, and a connection to my own work.

It’s interesting how a “simple” technique can fill the gap of 100+ years. And like everything in life, the basics, the simple things, are the best.

Introduction © Collier Brown. Feature text © Ben Mahler