While formal training in photography is often necessary to provide a foundational understanding of the medium, it can also box creativity in, so that artists focus on imitation more than their own unique artistic expression. It’s easy to become consumed with finding the tiniest flaw or inconsistency, rather than reflecting on personal growth and self-expression.
For photographer Zak Dimitrov, this controlled practice proved incredibly frustrating, to the point where he began destroying the negatives of his own images in order to overcome his irritation with them. Dimitrov soon realized that his chemical destructions situated his work within a new photographic realm – one that altered each infuriating image into a new work of art, brought to life through vibrant chemical reactions. The resulting images are part of his ongoing series Ruptured, which he adds to each week.
In this interview, Dimitrov speaks to LensCulture about the process of experimentation, how his work has evolved into a long-term, fulfilling project, and why it’s important to trust your intuition in your creative process.
LensCulture: Your work can be described as a sort of intentional accident. You put the images through chemical alterations by selecting which elements interact with each photograph. When did you start experimenting with chemicals in this way in the darkroom?
Zak Dimitrov: When I started working in the darkroom, I was making standard 8x10 prints, portraits, and images of architecture, trying out a bit of everything. Over time, I started experimenting with stuff like liquid light and other components, and that’s when I realized that photography doesn’t actually have to be a picture on paper. I started printing on things like t-shirts and paper plates, experimenting with the possibilities of what the definition of a photography can be. But I still felt like there was a disconnect with my images, and I spent a lot of time trying to figure that out.
LC: After beginning with this more traditional practice and then shifting into different printing methods, how did you start making Ruptured? Was there something in particular that inspired the work?
ZD: When I graduated from university and started working, I was really struggling to come up with a project to fulfill my creative side. I get really, really frustrated with most of my photographs, because as soon as I look at them, I only see their imperfections and instantly don’t like them. So in a way, I started making the pieces in Ruptured to destroy those photographs and express my frustration with them. I wanted to channel this frustration that came out of thinking about myself as a bad photographer.
Making this work eliminates my obsession with finding those flaws. It’s like when you scan an image and you have a bit of dust on the scanner bed, and you look at the scan, see the fleck, and get incredibly annoyed. But with this work, when I have that dust, it’s all part of the process and I can embrace it. It’s about freeing myself from the possibilities of making a mistake.
LC: Walk me through how you make these images. Do you start with the negatives?
ZD: A lot of my latest photographs are made with a medium format camera, so those are the negatives I’m working with at the moment. I bleach and scratch them, and I also pour caustic soda on them, and then I scan them. But before I transitioned to destroying my own images, I started with other pictures that really, really annoyed me – ones that I don’t think should exist, like cute smiling babies and sunsets. All the cheesy touristy stuff. I work at a print shop, so I have access to a lot of that imagery.
Then I began incorporating more personal photographs, like images of family members and friends. This work is in a constant state of transition, so those are the images I’m working with the most now, and I’m thinking about taking this even further by altering a series of self portraits.
LC: I’m sure working with these chemicals was a massive learning process, especially for determining what effects you like the most through constant trial and error. What are some particular outcomes you’ve noticed throughout this experimentation?
ZD: I first experimented to figure out if it’s best so scratch the image and then bleach it, or vice versa. When you start with bleach and scratch afterwards, the scratches end up a bit more pronounced, which I don’t really like. But if you scratch it first, the bleach actually gets into those divots and it looks a bit more 3D, like scratched skin. After I had a good handle on that method, I started using caustic soda, which creates crystals on the negative that are shaped like little crosses. And when these crystals interact with the emulsion, they create other interesting shapes, which I love.
LC: Because this work is very experimental, I’m wondering what kind of environment you have to be in when you’re making each image. Do you need total silence, or is the opposite?
ZD: It used to be the case that silence did not work for me – it had to be the total opposite. I usually make these pieces on Saturdays, and I play classical music to put me into this zone to start the scratching and bleaching. But now, the scratching itself usually takes me about five hours, and it’s quite meditative. A lot of time can pass before I realize that I have been in complete silence. I find that process really relaxing. But for the bleaching, when I’m playing around with the emulsion and shifting things to drip a certain way or fold in a particular direction, I definitely need to listen to music.
LC: The colors you manage to achieve with these chemicals are really vibrant. How do you create these lively green and fiery hues?
ZD: It’s all about the chemical reaction. I get the really bright colors on the negative with the caustic soda, which I often mix with the bleach or vinegar. When you use bleach, you only get red and orange, but the caustic soda is what creates the green. I love bringing both together in a single print.
LC: Tell me a bit about the title Ruptured. It’s obviously quite literal, but I also find it very theatrical. Why did you choose this word to represent this work?
ZD: Because I’m working with pictures that really frustrate me, I wanted to reference that somehow. It’s a strong word, and I am tearing at the surfaces of these photographs, so it kind of addresses my relationship to the images while also addressing the literal rupturing of the photograph’s surface.
LC: Since this work is so dynamic, different viewers can really bring their own reactions to each piece. What have been some of your favourite interpretations of it?
ZD: Every single person who has seen this work has a different association with it, and I love that. There’s an image of an older woman with a large black hole on her face, and the person who acquired this print spun it upside down because she saw something totally different. Where I might see something more abstract, others see more literal images, and vice versa – and I really love hearing about these different perspectives. It can be whatever you see in it!