Internationally acclaimed photographer Josephine Sacabo has been fascinated by photogravures for ages, but the process always seemed too cumbersome to be practical. All but forgotten in modern times, the photogravure is a photographic image that is reproduced like a traditional print " etched into a copper plate and printed on an old-time press " instead of by an enlarger in a darkroom. Very popular among 19th century art photographers, it was a process that lent itself to darkly impressionistic effects that were way too romantic for 20th century modernists. But that was then. New technologies have made darkroom and film chemistry almost as obsolete as the photogravure, and now those same new technologies are giving photogravures a new lease on life.
Never one to rush to embrace digital technology in the past, Sacabo suddenly found herself immersed in the cryptic world of computer programs and the exotic new devices that would enable her to create photogravures without having to return to the dark ages. The basics of the final printing process, of course, are still the same (otherwise they would not be true photogravures), but there are a lot of new options for photographers trying to get their images to that magical moment on the press. It is still a much more laborious process than ordinary digital reproduction on an ink jet printer, but it is no longer out of the question. Sacabo's new Lux Perpetua, Nocturnes and Sor Juana series reflect the impressionistic immediacy that made photogravures so popular with the early masters of the photographic medium.
Adding another ripple to an already exotic mix, Sacabo incorporates a lot of very stylized solarizations in two new series, Nocturnes and Lux Perpetua. The latter is a Latin term for 'perpetual or eternal light," which suggests something cosmic or supernatural. The solarizations " which cause images to appear partially as they did in film negatives, as if in a state of profound transformation " effectively convey that sensibility, but the viewer may have to look twice to get the full effect. In Sacabo's work, shadows are almost as much a subject as the human content. Influenced by European poetry and Hispanic fiction, she uses them as accomplices to the dramatic, if mysterious, behavior of her mostly female models. A Hispanic reviewer of one of her earlier series went so far as to call them 'Shadows that tell a story, observe, reveal, whisper, keen shadows that illuminate the darkness." In Lux Perpetua, the shadows cling to the body of her female subjects, who almost appear as if lit from behind. Consequently, the romantic-archaic look of the images in this and the Nocturnes series may require a bit of extended contemplation to fully appreciate.
The Sor Juana series, a photo poem dealing with the life of Sor Juana Inez De La Cruz, a 17th century Mexican nun who was also a poet and an early advocate for the rights of women, Sacabo's imagery returns to her more familiar, romantically murky, 'through a glass darkly" look. For instance, in El Espejo, 'the mirror," there is nothing in particular happening, just a ghostly image of a woman in an antique, psychically charged environment. In La Esperanza, 'hope," a woman's face emerges in similar fashion. Here, as in so much of Sacabo's work, light suggests a moment of revelation, and shadows seem to speak like a Greek chorus, reaffirming a transformational sensibility. Unlike documentary photography, which takes us to other places and people, Sacabo's work portrays not simply a poet-nun who was executed during the Inquisition for her outspoken views on women's rights, but something more: that part of the psyche we all share, that shadowy place where ideas and possibilities are conceived in darkness, then nurtured as epiphanies that are only gradually born into the light over the course of time. It is an admittedly romantic notion, but one that endures.
- In Josephine Sacabo's photogravures such as El Espejo, light and shadows are as important as her human subjects.