Matthew Brandt’s Tar

Brandt-La-Brea

Matthew Brandt, La Brea D2AB, 2013 

Yossi Milo Gallery is one of New York’s leading galleries specializing in photography. It’s most recent show was Excavations by Matthew Brandt, made of two projects, La Brea and Dust. The La Brea series features large pictures of prehistoric skeletons, the one above like something from the apocalypse.

Brandt has revived the oldest photographic technique, the heliography process devised by Niépce in 1826 to make that view from the farmhouse window regarded as the oldest surviving photograph. This technique was not silver-based but used tar, bitumen of Judea, as the light-sensitive medium.

The La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles is a natural formation of underground tar welling up to form a small lake, it’s black and bubbles with gas as you watch it. Prehistoric bones were found preserved in it and are mounted in a nearby museum. Brandt photographed these displays of sabre-tooth tigers and the like, and made large transparencies – very large. Then he collected tar from the tar pits, coated large sheets of aluminium, laid the transparencies over them and left them in the L.A. sun. It’s not stated how long Brandt left them to bake, but Niépce took eight hours.

After washing them to remove the soft tar, only the sun-hardened parts remain, “leaving an image of the fossil created from its ancient remains”.

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