Assignment: get a bunch of drugs and make a picture. Well, not exactly like you are thinking. One of my favorite clients, Nancy Etheredge at E.P. Dutton Publishing hired me to do a cover photogram for a hard bound book “Intoxication – Life in Pursuit of Artificial Paradise” by Ronald K. Siegel, Ph D. Sounded like a lot of fun to me! (It is still in print, but without my cover.)
It was 1988 and New York was in the throes of a crack epidemic, so the subject was going to interest a lot of people. Besides, who isn’t into drugs? But the first thing on my agenda was to read an excerpt from the book, study the layout showing the dimensions of the cover and where the type would go. Then I would provide the AD with a sketch of my ideas for feedback, revisions and approval.
The next step was to find things which represented drugs and alcohol and were also good for making photograms. Things which have recognizable shapes and things which are translucent are ideal for making photograms. A photogram is like an x-ray but using visible light instead of x-rays to expose the objects onto the light sensitive photographic material. In my case I often made color photograms using Cibachrome (then re-named Ilfochrome – and now no longer available.) So I’m looking for colorful translucent objects.
A list: wine glass, bottle of booze, shot glass, hypodermic syringe, pills and capsules, marijuana leaves, crack vials…. I knew where to get most of those but my days of sowing wild oats were long past, so the last two were more problematic. I did “have a friend,” however, who smoked pot. A phone call and “he checked with a friend” and came up with fresh marijuana leaves. Bingo! He sent them to me via Fedex. Then crack vials – in some neighborhoods all you needed was a broom and a dustpan to clean up the sidewalk in the morning. But I wanted ones which weren’t all scratched up, or had some powder in them. So I went to a “head shop” in Greenwich Village and asked. As he looked me up and down, the clerk asked me what I was going to do with them ( trying to figure out if I was a cop because I sure didn’t look like a crack head or dealer.) When I explained it was for a picture he relaxed and asked “100 or 1000?” Bingo! and back to the studio. I already had accumulated the other props. I love when most of the imagery can be provided by photograms. But in this case a few things had to be photographed first: The razor blade and white powder (baking soda) at the bottom left, the marijuana joints (tobacco) and a few of the pills were all in one 4×5 transparency.
I loaded the Cibachrome processor with chemicals, turned on the exhaust fans, warmed up and calibrated the color enlarger, and got out my large boxes of paper. Since some of the props were larger – like the bottle and wine glass – this would require 16×20″ or 20×24.” I hoped it could be done with the 16×20″ because it was the max size for the processor. No such luck, it would have to be 20×24″ and each print would have to be drum processed by hand, a much more time consuming way to develop prints. I turned out the lights and started making pictures.
In the end I was thrilled with the results, and so was the client. The combination of photograph and photogram allows me to mix the scale of the subjects, and then putting a couple of capsules and a crack vial inside the enlarger on top of the transparency gave me some super enlarged items.
I hope it is a little mind-bending, I like people to look at the picture and feel like something isn’t quite right. Almost like the artist was doing drugs.