Artist Ethan Jantzer creates photograms that take photography back to its roots. Moments of boredom while working at a photo lab led Ethan to experiment with raw film and lights and to hone a process he likens to creating a sunburn on film. Just about any object sparks his interest — fish, twine, grass — and he uses liquids such as Gatorade and Windex to achieve the colors he wants. Whether he’s creating a short movie or experimenting with subjects and techniques, Ethan loves the what-if hunt that keeps this art form fresh.
Goldfish photogram by Ethan Jantzer
How do you create your photograms, and how did you first come up with this idea?
The medium and basic process of creating an image without a camera dates back to the 1700s. The photogram is how photography began. The techniques I use to create my work is rather unique though and is something I’m always refining. The way a photogram is produced is best understood when you think of it as a sunburn on film. If you were to lay in the sun with a leaf on your back, at the end of the day you would have a sunburn in the shape of that leaf. I essentially do the same thing using large sheets of photographic film or paper.
Most people that study or have studied photography have created photograms. It’s often just a quick exercise used to illustrate how light-sensitive materials work. Years ago, I was working in a professional photo lab, and on my lunch hour I would sneak into a darkroom and mess around a bit. One day I started exposing raw sheets of film to various lights, creating small color studies of sorts. Those “Hey, I’m bored… what happens if I do this?” images quickly led to lots of experiments with sheet film and the basis of my unusual process.
In total darkness, I lay objects on top of or in front of large sheets of photographic film or paper. Once the composition is in place, I flash light through colored liquids like Gatorade or Windex. This burst of saturated colored light creates shadows that are captured on the film or paper. By combining multiple flashes of light from various angles, I am able to create unique photographic images. One thing I really like about the process is how it forces me to pay attention to subtle changes in an object’s form or texture. I guess the same could be said about the images. The lack of detail makes us address or at least acknowledge the often overlooked and subtle details.
Red poppies, photogram by Ethan Jantzer
Why Gatorade and Windex?
I was working on a project for the Sports Authority, creating some large pieces for the walls of their corporate offices. It was hot in the studio, and I was drinking a lot of Gatorade. For some reason, I decided to see what would happen if I flashed a light through the bottle, and I liked the image it created. Gatorade is perfect because it’s inexpensive and comes in a variety of colors. My studio has a big rack with bottle after bottle of all these different colored liquids. When I start a project, I create these various formulas for how I plan on creating the color in the piece. The formula is a specific combination and layout of flashes/exposures. Each flash passes through a specific liquid at a pre-determined distance and angle. Even after years of refining my process, I’m not always able to pre-determine the outcome. Some of my favorite works began as happy accidents. Working in the dark quickly leads to a more improvisational approach. That’s when it’s most fun to pick up the processed film — I never really know what I’m going to get!
Tall grass on red background, photogram by Ethan Jantzer
Tall grass photogram by Ethan Jantzer
What is your background in art? Did you start with traditional photography?
I grew up in a rather creative house. My mom was an artist and always encouraged us to create. I never anticipated that hobby would lead to a passion and eventually a career. It was just fun, just what we did. I have an Art and Industrial Design degree but didn’t get it until later in life. I had my first gallery show years before I took a college art course. The academic art world and exhibiting are so different. When I went back to school, it was challenging at times to juggle the two. It would be boring if I wasn’t still learning. I’m trying to pick up something new every time I go into the studio or meet with another artist.
It looks like your process doesn’t allow for a high degree of focus or definition, which works in your favor. What are you trying to achieve, and what makes for a successful image for you?
A lot plays into the focus and detail of a photogram, but one of the biggest factors is the distance between the object and the film’s light-sensitive surface. Where the object is in direct contact, the edges are sharp. But even the slightest separation starts to vary the focus. The further away it is, the more blurred or the softer the shadow’s edge will become. I enjoy images that have both — selective focus where parts are sharp but others are soft. This combination provides depth while provoking further interest.
My definition of a successful image changes. Sometimes it’s about color and figuring out what combination of light will give me what I’m looking for. Other times I’m after something specific with the silhouette. The easy answer would come down to aesthetics, I guess. The sale of a piece would determine some success. I hate that sales are part of that equation, but without them I couldn’t continue to feed the passion/addiction of creating. I have plenty of work sitting in a closet that I believe is successful, but in the end it’s still sitting in a closet. If it was hanging somewhere, I would be less likely to doubt its success.
Dandelion silhouettes photogram by Ethan Jantzer
Clover on red background photogram by Ethan Jantzer
I see you do a lot of botanical images but also fish and other things. What inspires your work, and what makes you want to capture a certain image?
I’ve always liked shadows and the subtle ways the angle of the sun creates and morphs the overall form. The different shadows cast from everyday objects and actions inspire me. I like being able to create, record, and often enlarge these moments. I want to capture most everything. I’m sure it gets frustrating for my friends and family, because I’m always stopping or talking about various things I want to photogram. It’s not uncommon for me to stop and pick some weird thing up from a parking lot or store shelf only to closely examine it and comment about capturing its shadow. There’s really not much that doesn’t spark a desire to throw it on a piece of film and flash some lights.
Green grass photogram by Ethan Jantzer
Frayed twine photogram by Ethan Jantzer
Part of the appeal of your work is how you mount it on acrylic without a frame. Tell me about how you experimented to find this way of displaying your work.
I’ve been doing face mounts for several years, and even though I love the clean look it provides, I’m always looking at new substrates and thinking about new ways to finish my work. Years ago, I saw a show with some pieces presented in a similar way and just loved the simplicity. It has its strengths but overall is difficult to execute. So many surfaces needing to be perfect and dust free. It gets a little nerve-wracking.
Face-mounted work by Ethan Jantzer
Rounded corner mountings by Ethan Jantzer
What sizes are you typically working in, and are you able to do large-scale pieces?
Many of my images are square. This is a product of my process but also an aesthetic I enjoy. With the square images, I have a few standard sizes I like to work with: 12×12, 16×16, 24×24. I have produced pieces on plexiglass that were 4 feet by 8 feet. I’m limited because of the size of the acrylic sheets. Anything larger has to be mounted differently or wallpapered in sections.
Photogram with alternate mounting by Ethan Jantzer
How are you selling your work?
I just left a gallery I had been with for several years, so that question is all the more relevant. I may need to contemplate adding to this equation. As of today, I work from my studio and Art + Soul Gallery in Boulder. I also work with a handful of art consultants from around the country that place work in corporate collections.
I understand you recently did a public art project. How does this work differ from your normal projects?
Everything is different. The medium, the size, the presentation, the big legal contract from the city, etc. It’s a video installation at the east end of concourse B inside the Denver International Airport. I consider myself lucky to have such a great opportunity to show my work, and the budget allowed me to explore many exciting new methods. The public art realm is a bit intimidating, and working in a secure environment like an airport comes with its own set of challenges. I learned so much while completing Are We there Yet? It was a great experience. Now the question is, how will it be perceived? Heavy scrutiny of public art isn’t uncommon. It’s no good if everybody likes it, but it’s a failure if nobody likes it. I’d like to avoid that storm, if possible. I couldn’t say enough about how special the opportunity was — it allowed me to explore new methods and practices that I wouldn’t have otherwise.
I created a giant stretched canvas of sorts — a big piece of fabric about 20 feet long and 9 feet tall. At sunset, I had people from all over come and walk, run, play, etc., on one side of the fabric while I filmed the shadows they created on the other side. After weeks of capturing various shadows and silhouettes, I was able to layer and compile hundreds of clips to produce a 16-minute film. So at DIA, I have built a big box of sorts and the movie will project within this structure. It’s a fun piece, a portrait of life and community shown using shadows and silhouettes.
Film project by Ethan Jantzer
Film project during installation by Ethan Jantzer
Where do you see your work going from here?
I’m not sure. I think I’ll continue to play around with the various series I’ve been working on and wait for that moment of ah-hah to begin anew. I’ll apply for future public projects and work on developing new gallery relationships. I’ve been collecting items for a really large photogram of plastic weapons and am hoping to find an institution to display it in the next year. I’m not an anti-gun guy but was really surprised at how quickly my two boys had amassed so many small plastic weapons. One day while picking up toys, I started to put them all into a pile. And when I was finished gathering them, I decided I would do a large piece packed with these tiny silhouettes. I’d really like to work on a project that required some fun travels — let me know if you hear of anything exciting!
Photogram by Ethan Jantzer
What are some of your favorite things, whether they impact your work directly or just make you happy?
I’m a bit of a design and architecture enthusiast. If I had it to do all over again, I probably would pursue architecture. I play a lot of disc golf, spend a lot of time dreaming about future home improvements, and spend a lot of time with my wife Susan and our two boys. Corbin is 5 and Caden is 3, so our house can get a little crazy at times. I really like Mexican food and chocolate. I eat way too much chocolate.
Watch for Ethan’s new website coming soon!
Share the love, post a comment!