Martha Madigan

Don’t call Martha Madigan a “photographer,” call her a “witness to light.” For more than 25 years, Madigan has been using photosensitive papers to make what she calls “solar photograms.” Madigan’s pictures are created without camera or film, relying instead on the fundamentals-patience and sunlight. The results are haunting collages assembled from shadows, reflecting back this artist’s interest in nature, childhood, and spiritual transcendence.

“If you think about it, light is the source of everything and a metaphor for everything,” explains Madigan, describing her unique process in which she exposes photosensitive papers to natural light, often in outdoor settings. Her techniques date back to the beginning of photography, especially William Henry Fox Talbot’s invention of the paper negative and Amy Atkin’s cyanotype studies of botanical subjects. In comparison to the high-tech antics of many creative photographers who have switched over to digital darkrooms, Madigan’s approach seems downright “ancient,” a term she embraces.

“Vernal Equinox,” Madigan’s recent show of her latest work at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in New York this summer, demonstrated the rich results this artist achieves from the simplest methods. In these pictures, shadows of children float against dense backgrounds, while fields of flowers dance brightly across the dark silhouettes. Madigan is able to pack layer upon layer of details into her photograms, often using an earlier print as a paper negative for the next version, then placing leaves, petals, ferns, and flowers between the sheets to achieve the final result. It’s a mesmerizing dance between darkness and light, design and nature, botany and biology.

While other photographers have made use of photograms-from Man Ray’s 1920s rayograms to Adam Fuss’s more contemporary Cibachromes (now called Ilfochromes)-none has attained these intricate effects. “I could have been a painter, I suppose,” says Madigan, 50, who has been working with photograms since the 1970s. “But the immediacy of photography suited my restless nature.” Indeed, even within the strict limitations of the process of making photograms, Madigan has continued to explore and push boundaries. Growing up in Milwaukee, she had few role models within her immediate family, but she already knew that she wanted to become an artist and even as a child found herself studying the play of light on trees in the parks along Lake Michigan. As an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, her experimental nature was encouraged by one teacher, Cavalliere Ketchum. “It was inspiring to be with someone who had so much to say about my work,” recalls Madigan, who went on to get an M.F.A. from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1978, where she had a chance to study with such renowned photo artists as Ken Josephson, Barbara Crane, and Joyce Neimanas. From the outset, she was hooked on cameraless processes. “I loved being out of the darkroom,” she says. “I was one of those people who had an instant turnaround to photography as soon as I found out I didn’t have to be in the darkroom 14 hours a day.”

However, Madigan’s first major work in cyanotype began when she moved to Philadelphia in 1979 with her husband, Jeffrey Fuller, an appraiser and art dealer. Philadelphia is a city decorated with art nouveau bridges built at the turn of the century, and the filigree of the ironwork attracted Madigan’s attention. Soon, she was trying to figure out how to use the bridge itself as a negative, to leave its mark on her cyanotype prints. Falls Bridge, built in Fairmont Park in 1895, inspired one of her first and most ambitious projects. To register the imprint of this bridge, Madigan mounted huge sheets of hand-sensitized cyanotype paper, 54 inches high and 120 inches long, on armatures. Covered in black cloth during the mounting process, once in place, Madigan would expose the paper for up to 12 hours to capture the shadows left by the railing in the summer sun. “I would wait until the sun was just perfect, then I would remove the protective dark cloth to reveal the paper and leave it there until sundown,” she recalls.

The physical process, while arduous, became an essential element in her work. “My body goes into the picture making,” Madigan explains, adding, “I become a catalyst for nature to channel through me onto the paper.” Madigan compares her process to Jackson Pollock’s way of making a painting-“he’s not just painting, he is in the painting!”-explaining that she similarly tries to immerse herself in her picture making. This is far different than the traditional notion of photography, where the photographer waits, camera in hand, to capture an instant of reality through a viewfinder. In fact, Madigan dismisses the entire notion of a “decisive moment,” preferring to make pictures that reflect the changes that occur over long periods of time.

With the birth of her children-Daniel, who is now 20; Claire, 15; and Grace, 11-Madigan found the perfect subject matter for her unique style of working. What better example of her own body’s creativity than her own children? And what could better show the way that life thrives in nature and sunlight than the delightful forms of her own babies playing across her prints? “The birth of my son opened something within me so deep as an artist and as a person,” says Madigan. “More and more, I saw the connection to the sun as being as important as the subject matter in the work itself.” Adding impressions of her own children’s bodies to her photograms personalized the imagery, but never in ways that made the prints sappy or corny. Instead, Madigan was able to transform these baby pictures into a mystical iconography filled with metaphors for the impermanence of life and the ephemeral nature of childhood. Writing on this work, photography critic Charles Hagen wrote: “Inside the pictures, we find ourselves in a shadow world parallel to the everyday one in which we usually exist.”
By the 1980s, Madigan found herself becoming ill from overexposure to the chemicals used in cyanotype printing and switched to a little-known photo process using “printing-out paper” or P.O.P. (Once produced by Kodak, P.O.P. is now only available through a company in England.) This paper develops only in ultraviolet light with very long exposure times. “It really wasn’t my discovery,” says Madigan, “it was one of the first forms of photographic paper, used into the 20th century, by photographers such as Atget.” The paper allows her to work slowly, waiting up to two hours for an image to take hold. It also lets Madigan go back into the prints, exposing the paper time and again without running the risk of overexposure.

At the same time, Madigan encountered Swami Muktananda, a master meditation teacher, who catalyzed a spiritual transformation in the artist’s life. “He opened up a part of me that was just waiting to be opened,” says Madigan. “It was everything I was already trying to do through my work, but it was less focused.” Since then, the practice of meditation and its emphasis on the fluidity of life continues to inspire her work. “In this teaching, the inner world and outer world are all one, it brings an awareness of the temporal nature of the body and the challenge of finding a constant in a world that is eternally changing.” In her latest work, Madigan brings this influence to the foreground, titling her works after ancient deities, such as Saraswati, a creation goddess, or Umbria, goddess of shadows and secrecy. Even without these names, the images harbor distinctly spiritual overtones, gently leading viewers to see the fleeting durability of a dandelion or the promise of a girl’s body on the threshold of adult sexuality.

“Teachers have always been very important to me,” explains Madigan, who has taught at Tyler since 1979. “I hope that I can just give, really give to my students and to anyone I know, what I feel has been given to me.” However, between teaching, raising children, and making her work, Madigan did not have much time to pursue a professional gallery career or to take on major art projects. She has shown consistently in university galleries including solo shows at the Rhode Island School of Design, the Haggerty Museum of Art at Marquette University in Milwaukee, and the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her work is in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the California Museum of Photography, the Detroit Institute of the Arts, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and many other renowned institutions.Madigan received a big boost to her career in 1993 when New York dealer Michael Rosenfeld and his gallery director Halley Harrisburg spotted the artist’s work in her husband’s office during a visit to Philadelphia. “Seeing her work was a completely visceral experience,” says Harrisburg, who immediately invited Madigan to show in New York the following year. “Martha finds a balance between the aesthetic and the metaphysical so the work holds its own on both levels.” While photography dealers relish the chance to sell multiples and editioned prints, Harrisburg enjoys working with a photographer whose prints are unique objects. “I love to have the opportunity to sell a form of photography that is entirely unique,” she explains. “No print will ever be duplicated, and there is something special about knowing you own a work that is one of a kind.
In the past five years, Madigan has received her first wave of widespread attention, at an age when many other artists are already considered midcareer. In addition to three solo shows at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, Madigan has begun undertaking large-scale public-art projects. In 1996, the CoreStates Center, Philadelphia’s new sports arena complex, unveiled Elements, Madigan’s first public-art commission, which soars above visitors entering its West Atrium. For Elements, Madigan created a series of six images of silhouettes leaping, running, and playing across a variety of landscapes that symbolize the four elements-earth, air, fire, and water-to connect the sports theme to its roots in ancient Greece. Madigan’s first use of digital printing, spans four by nine feet and is embedded between sheets of sapphire- crystal glass. The panels then hang off a circular steel armature, making the images fly through the air. To create this two-ton installation, Madigan worked with a team of designers, architects, and engineers. She is now preparing another commission, for Temple University Children’s Hospital, and has just received approval for a public-art project in a New York City elementary school in Queens.
MG: I have a small studio, about 500 square feet. The majority of the time, we rent a location or a studio. Shooting a lot of high-end celebrities requires a plush, high-end space.To complete these large-scale public projects, Madigan has had to make the leap from the 19th century into the 21st century-but this change is not frightening to her. “I will probably keep trying to combine ancient ways of working, like the photogram, and ancient materials, like glass and tile, with more contemporary techniques.” It is all part of the process for this artist for whom time, space, and light are all part of the big picture.n

Barbara Pollack is an artist and writer who lives in New York City. She also has written for ARTnews and The Village Voice.

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