After decades of working with film-based imagery, artist and master printer Chuck Kelton turned his eye towards a reduced pictorial space. He works inside a darkroom, transforming light, paper and chemistry into rich, abstract landscapes that coax sublime beauty from fundamental photographic materials. Because his practice foregoes cameras and negatives, each work is entirely unique.

Gold chloride and selenium toned chemograms create a surprising palette of fiery oranges and lush violets from gelatin silver paper. In a smaller suite of work, Kelton combines chemogram and photogram techniques; the shift marked with a cracked, folded horizon line separating swirling tones from values that transition into a subtle, velvety black.

The image in a photogram is the result of exposing photographic paper to light—writing with light. Whereas the image in a chemogram is the outcome of exposing photographic paper to developer and fixer—writing with chemistry.

Jim Casper contacted Chuck Kelton via email to learn more about his artistic practice. Here is an edited version of that interview:

“These specific images have been evolving for about six years; the emotional evolution that got me to this moment has been going on for decades.” — Chuck Kelton

LC: Your works are made without cameras, yet they evoke luscious three-dimensional landscapes and beautiful abstractions. Can you talk a little bit about how you experimented to develop the processes that you are using now? When was the first time you made an image like this that you liked?

CK: Photographic imagery is defined by its materials and the processes used to control those materials. In my work as an artist and master printer I have continued to explore, to define to redefine, to abuse and use those materials. I have investigated processes and formulas that date back 150 years.

This created a platform for my visual vocabulary. The real issue then became the ability to construct this information into a narrative and language that worked for me as an object —a dialogue between materials, process, visual intention and emotion. These specific images have been evolving for about six years; the emotional evolution that got me to this moment has been going on for decades.

LC: Many of your images are made by folding the photo paper before exposing it to light and chemicals. What does the folding do in the creation of the image?

CK: In its basic sense, the fold suggests a horizon line that divides the image. At the same time I am interested in allowing the fractured structure of the paper to provide its own story, and not least of all I’m interested in violating the perfection of the paper.

These worked magnificently together and created a drama which helped shift the “story” under the surface of the paper.

LC: After years of working in the darkroom, are you able to predict fairly well how an image will come out? Or is there still a lot of chance involved in the process? How do you improve the chances of getting a stunning image?

CK: My process is very selective yet there is always a randomness or allowance for chance.

I’m working with the tension between these two forces, allowing the materials as well as the performance to create the image. I work with these images with many layers of chemicals: developers, fixers, bleaches, re-developers and finally toners.

I suppose by the end, the image, paper, chemicals and myself are exhausted. This is how I improve my chances of achieving beautiful these images.

LC: What are the qualities of images that you decide are successful? How do you select images for an exhibition?

CK: I’m looking for spectacular images, something I haven’t seen before, something that references photography and a hundred other things both historical and visual.

A moment where chaos seems to undermine harmony. A moment where you feel threatened and peaceful, a visual dialogue between oppositions; irrational and rational, belief to disbelief, something at once known and unknown. Simple things.

LC: Can you talk a bit about the scale and size of the images? Does size change the way the chemicals and light interact with the paper? Do you prefer to work large or small? Why?

CK: I work in many sizes, just now I’m seduced by the intimacy of the smaller scale……

You are correct the larger scale requires many changes in this process, the paper absorbs differently. You can see the “trails” of chemical applications and the sense of a hand is more present; things I’m trying to avoid.

LC: You have worked in the darkroom with some of the world’s best photographers. Can you talk a bit about the difference between printing from negatives and making art directly on photo paper?

CK: When I create a print from a negative or just using light and chemistry I’m creating a visual story. I interpret what I I’ve been given through the use of the materials and my emotional response to that. This never changes. I think and respond to them in very similar ways.

LC: I imagine you feel a lot more free to experiment with your own work. Can you talk about the difference of printing for someone else, and printing for yourself?

CK: I really do employ the same system. My responsibility is to make the strongest possible statement using the materials and process available to me. When I’m given a negative to print, decades of information intuitively pours out into that print. This is part of me, then it becomes part of the image.

I would say that I most likely would not pour gold chloride into the developer I was using for a Danny Lyon print. But for myself, of course. With my own works there is nothing I will not try.

LC: Do you still use a camera sometimes in your work? And if so, what kind of images do you like to make with a camera?

CK: Yes. I actually never stopped using a camera; I love photography!

At the moment I’m pushing the physical properties of both film and film developers, attempting to achieve an image extremely unique both physically and emotionally. I’m shooting images primarily of mountains and skies. Not a big surprise!

— Chuck Kelton, interviewed by Jim Casper