Black Powder - Damion Berger

"Gunpowder, also known as black powder, is the earliest known chemical explosive. Following its invention in ancient China, the earliest documentation of fireworks can be traced back to the 9th century when they were first used by the Chinese to frighten away evil spirits and pray for happiness and prosperity.

Reflecting on the nature and form of fireworks and their role in contemporary culture, these photographs ostensively record worldly celebrations memorialized with pyrotechnics, from the inauguration of Earth’s tallest building in downtown Dubai to art performances in the Jardin de Tuileries.

Grand in both size and scale, these images are made using in-camera techniques such as long and overlapping exposures and unorthodox combinations of focus and aperture to select, sculpt and multiply the explosions onto a single sheet of film. They are printed back as negatives by making facsimile enlargements of the exposed film.

What is black is equally important as what is white."


What did you want to express with this series? And why did you represent it in this particular way?

The first fireworks photograph I made that inspired the series was in the summer of 2009. I had one last sheet of film on the reverse of a double-sided film holder that I wanted to expose, just in order to develop a batch of earlier exposures… A throwaway shot so to speak. That night a Sting concert was playing nearby and suddenly to coincide with the end of the concert a firework display suddenly kicked off from a little tugboat in the bay in front of my apartment. I ran out to the balcony and without a tripod handy I grabbed a pillow to steady my camera trained on the fireworks as I exposed that last sheet of film.

Shortly after sending my film in for development, I went back to NY for a while. Still there many months later, and having long forgotten about the film, I received a package from my lab. In it was the one and only black and white 4x5" negative of the fireworks I had taken… Except they'd forgotten to send me its contact sheet! So, I placed the negative on my lightbox and, in spite of familiarity with negatives of all flavors, the initial impact of seeing that specific negative of fireworks at night, devoid of the experience of its positive version, had a transformative and revelatory effect - leading me on a path of investigation that has yielded what I think is a strikingly unconventional series of photographs that explores the very nature of photography within a broader context that poses questions about spectacle, history and celebration.

My fascination really lies in exploring the discrepancy between what the photograph can record relative to our own first-hand visual experience of the fleeting gesture, trajectory and form that fireworks or indeed any other 'light source' for lack of a better term can imprint. Beyond that, I think the context, application and motivation for employing fireworks says an awful lot about our culture and the conspicuous consumption of our times. Of course, I'm not interested in the obvious gestural cliché typical of most firework photographs, I'm fascinated by how fireworks can help re-contextualize the familiar through the alchemy of the photographic process, and in so doing raise questions about everything from history, architecture, reality, and time, that have a far more profound resonance.


And why in black and white?

I think there's enough complexity going on in the images without needing to add to it by introducing color! Black and white generally casts a nostalgic tone but in the negative it's electric, vibrant, modern and recognizably unfamiliar. The black and white properties of the dark lines, forms and marks that constitute many of my images establish a conversation with drawing, painting and other art practice, which is most engaging when people view my photographs without the fore-knowledge that they're looking at photography.


How is this series also a tribute to the history of photography?

Since photography's beginnings the medium has continually changed by virtue of chemical, mechanical, industrial or technological evolution - from paper negatives, to daguerreotypes, gelatin-silver process to digital silicon imaging, and everything in between. With the advent of digital imaging and the monumental democratization of the camera through digital photography and the ubiquity of camera phones, the role of film as both an integral part of the negative-positive process (that has served us so long) and the very aesthetic of the negative image is and might from here on out be considered a quaint if not entirely foreign concept to those born of recent generations. By employing the heretofore intermediary negative as the final image, I'm at once presenting something very familiar in a totally different way and referencing the historical analogue foundation of the medium on the cusp of its likely extinction.


Where did you find the most impressive fireworks? And the most special story behind them?

When choosing what events to photograph, I research mostly on the web, choose firework displays that have particular contextual and conceptual appeal to me, for whatever reasons ranging from the historical, architectural or just plain kitsch… And then plan and travel specifically with that purpose.

I have anecdotes and vivid memories from many of the fireworks that I've photographed. I've photographed fireworks as part of my Black Powder series from majestic suites in fancy hotels, the bell-tower atop Westminster Abbey in London, and from rather more challenging and less hospitable terrain - I recall being in Santorini, to photograph the fireworks that re-enacted the Minoan eruption, and with permission from authorities I arrived by boat on the un-inhabited volcanic island at the center of the flooded caldera, with arrangements for pick-up after the event.

I arrived before sunset and endeavored to set up my camera surrounded by the jagged razor-like lava rocks formed by previous eruptions and within hours it was a pitched-black moonless night, darker than anything I've ever experienced. Later that night after the fireworks had ended I was expecting to be picked up by the young man who dropped me off in the first place in his small tender, shallow but rigid enough to approach the island without suffering a puncture on its jagged rocks. Alas he never showed and it got later and later without any sign of help. Just when I was seriously considering having to swim back the considerable distance to the main island, a boat helmed by the pyrotechnics crew sailed by and then fortunately turned back in my direction when they noticed the the beam of my flash- light signal in distress. Another hour ensued until a boat capable of rescuing me could be found.

When finally returned to shore on Santorini island with my camera equipment and film safe and sound, I realized I'd left a bag with my wallet and passport amongst the lava field on the volcanic island! Suffice to say that finding it again in the dark was not easy and I barely made it back to my hotel before it was time to leave for the airport for my return flight home!


What gear –talking about camera and post processing– did you use and how was your workflow to develop these images?

I use an entirely manual large format 4x5" camera - precision built but unchanged in all practical terms since photography's childhood, typical large format lenses and traditional black and white sheet film.

Research, instinct and Apple Maps or Google Earth are often indispensable to me to figure out the ideal vantage point to frame the photograph I have in mind. Alas, there are no two shoots alike and when expensive travel and complicated logistics are involved the stakes and stress levels of making sure everything goes as well as I can control increases proportionately. Often once I arrive on site the kind of photograph I had in mind goes out the window and by extension the vantage point I'd worked so hard to secure, often leaving me no choice but to scramble to find a more suitable alternative.

A rock-solid tripod, rigged with weights to make sure the camera doesn't move even in the slightest is the first order of business. The camera, takes a long time to set up - burying my head under the dark cloth again and again to decide on the correct lens to use, vertical or horizontal orientation, correct focus etc. All this procedure before figuring out a game plan for a very un-scientific method to make a photograph that is only loosely visualized in my mind.

There's no place for the normal technical approach in my work - no utility for a light meter and working out a typical exposure setting. Each attempt to take a photograph is essentially a brand new experiment. A combination of decisions in reaction to the landscape and the fireworks through the generally short duration of the display, honed by instinct and informed by the experience of trial and error. Juggling varying combinations of focus and aperture in tandem with rapid and successive openings and closings of the shutter, using a mechanical cable-release and/or a sheet of dark foam in front of the lens to avoid vibrations to the camera, in order to expose and re-expose the same singular negative. Generally an hours-long pre or post exposure is necessary to 'burn in' darker areas of the image to balance out the exposure with the bright fireworks.

After developing the negatives in my chemical darkroom I ultimately scan the chosen negative and make adjustments to reflect the integrity of the film negative in the file with Photoshop before printing. In terms of post-production there's very little else. My perfectionist nature dictates that this step is inescapably methodical and time consuming, although the integrity of the original negative is always my guide.


How did you start in photography and why? 

The impetus behind pleading with my parents aged 15 to buy me my first camera was a basic impulse to document my baby brother and sister's early beginnings. My interest in subject matter and photography itself quickly evolved and within two years I'd landed a summer job as an assistant to Helmut Newton from his base in Monaco. That unique experience ultimately lasted over a year until I was accepted into the photography program at Parsons schools of Design in New York.

My relationship with photography has and continues to evolve. At first my camera was as much an extension and facilitator of alter-ego as a means to impose a visual order on the world. Later my interest turned towards experimentation and process, making bigger and bolder strides conceptually and aesthetically that engage with a broad cross-section of art history whilst referencing the underlying alchemy of photography and questions related to time, movement and perception.


Photographer: Damion Berger  |  Website  |  Instagram