To envision the West and its memorably epic accompanying imagery—particularly that of New Mexico—is often to envision pristinely depicted landscapes. The likes of Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keeffe helped form a collective vision of unforgettable sights and sites, with New Mexico providing formations and natural landmarks familiar to locals and visitors alike. And that’s where artist Caitlyn Soldan bases the core of her upcoming solo exhibition at Obscura Gallery, Desertscapes: Altered Views of New Mexico, with the Pedernal, Taos Gorge and Shiprock serving as catalysts.
“It started with the Pedernal, trying to get just the silhouette. Then, I began manipulating it,” Soldan says. “When you take this iconic horizon line everyone associates with their own memories and experiences of New Mexico, and then you change and manipulate it—what happens?”
Her series is by no means a conventional depiction of iconic locales. The chosen sites are anchors in an experimental, conceptual process that deconstructs our perception and familiarity with such places, much like a memory distorting details over time. The landmarks shift, evolve and transform into something beyond themselves.
Soldan begins with a recognizable New Mexican landscape formation, and then, through various interwoven and alternative photo processes, the images become distorted with only the most key elements of their structure remaining. To move past iconography via repetition recalls Warhol, though Soldan’s variations on a theme are far more drastic and dramatic.
“I’ve always worked with these experimental processes,” says Soldan, who originally hails from Chicago, “so I was looking for a way to do them in a way that was more connected to New Mexico. I haven’t made much work about this state since I’ve lived out here.”
“Because I grew up in a place where there was not a lot of nature, places like New Mexico and even Savannah [Georgia] are very special to me,” she continues. “While Savannah was a beautiful, historic city, it didn’t have the monumental landscapes that New Mexico has.”
Soldan moved here in 2011 after college in Georgia. She works as the archivist for the Palace of the Governors’ historical photo archives, but, she says, “Even with my job at the archive, I’d thought I’d had a good understanding of this state’s history, but there’s so much more that I’m still learning all the time.”
This takes Desertscapes to a more personal realm. As much as the series is an exploration of form, process and perception, it’s also Soldan’s own understanding and experience of New Mexico.
“No matter how many hikes or weekend trips I take,” Soldan tells SFR, “I’m always finding something new that I’ve never heard of or seen before.”
Similarly, the variations she creates seem equally as vast and ripe with possibility. No image can be recreated as her rarified practices yield unpredictable results highly sensitive to the conditions she provides.
“Basically, I’m using three different processes—traditional darkroom black and white paper; gelatin silver,” Soldan says. “I liked the idea of using a very standard material to get wild variations in color and reactions out of it that people don’t even think is possible.”
Interchangeably, Soldan’s photographic processes include techniques like mordançage, chromoskedasic sabattier, lumen printing, chemical painting and solarization.
“Mordançage is a rare process developed by the French photographer Jean-Pierre Sudre, and helps the emulsion lift from the paper,” she notes. “It’s probably the most toxic of processes I’m using. I have to wear a respirator and work in a well ventilated room.”
These aren’t typical darkroom practices, and more impressively, some, such as chromoskedasic sabattier (or “chromo” for short), are self-taught.
“Chromo adds an iridescent, metallic effect,” Soldan illustrates.
The highly reflective quality of these chromo prints, along with textural
gradations and subtly diverse colors, makes experiencing the work in person crucial; Soldan provides a straight and un-manipulated representation of the landmark from which she deviates, further demonstrating the effects of her processes. Often, by the end, all that remains of the straight image is the horizon line.
“That’s really all you need, the horizon line,” she says. “That’s what you think of in your head, no matter how abstract I make it, if you’re familiar with New Mexico you’ll probably be able to pick it out.”
The horizon line thus becomes the sole, reimagined tether to reality left in her abstractions. Are these manipulations distortions or distillations? Minimalists like Donald Judd came to the Southwest attracted by the stark horizons accented by epic mountains, mesas and valleys. The visual, aesthetic path Soldan takes helps us see a landscape reduced to its core elements, its essence.
“I’m not focused on getting this perfect, traditional landscape print, although I work with traditional photographic methods like using film and working in darkrooms,” Soldan continues, highlighting what sets both this series and herself apart from what may be expected of Southwest landscape photography. “I’m a very process-oriented photographer.”
Soldan presents views from the state that may not be necessarily accurate to the scientific or objective reality of a natural monument, but that are somehow more true to what it can be like standing before them, then faintly recalling an image long after on the trip home.