The Microscopic World Of Sal Lopes
Images Of Worlds Often Hidden To Our Eyes

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Photos © 2003, Sal Lopes, All Rights Reserved

The objects in Sal Lopes' latest photographs reveal themselves in surprising ways. Objects that appear insignificant to the naked eye become multidimensional as they unfold in full splendor in the darkroom. In one macro photograph a tiny rock takes a new incarnation as a prehistoric face emerges. The flower from a sleeping maple tree leaf transforms itself from its microscopic structure to become a dramatic shape floating in a dark sea of infinity. Each image has a story to tell and Lopes translates it in the impeccable platinum processing that has earned him the reputation as this country's premier platinum printer.

The Illusion Of The Real
In the final images tiny objects reveal the miracle of how small things can create an illusion that we are looking at them as they really are. His photograms and macro images often start with something as small as 3/4 of an inch. In a macro of the Empire State Building he used a 3" souvenir to create the illusion that we are looking at the real thing.

At last year's Works on Paper Show native New Yorkers stared and wondered what they were looking at. There stood the building as they knew it against a soft gray sky. But was it? A dialog between the onlooker and the image began, the interaction a tip that what we see is not always the true reality. The object has become something else that exists only in Lopes' picture. A common little souvenir of the Empire State Building takes form in a 14x22" photographic print. We might consider these images in the realm of surrealism since they play with our perception but in truth they are but another dimension of photography.

Photogram Technique
The photograms are made on a light-sensitized surface. "Essentially," he says, "in the photograms you are seeing what is being recorded by my light. I have no idea what is going to happen in these since I can't see how the front of the image looks. The result depends on how I light it. Though the original object may be the same in two images, each appears different because of the light. I might light just the underside so there is no outline. One shape, for instance, appears like a glowing spinal cord."

These are long exposures of 4-5 minutes. Within this period there may be unexpected movement as a large vehicle travels past the studio. Lopes recognized he had to work with this and in some instances he purposely moves the object gently on the sensitized surface to create a more interesting statement. One image of a cone shows this intentional movement, its shimmering edges giving the picture an ethereal quality. "I don't want to see all of these things totally sharp," he says.

Macro Work
For the macro images he uses an old wooden view camera with a very long triple bellows extension which enables him to blow up the subject more and more the closer he gets and yet maintain the detail and the quality of the light he is using. "In one image of a poppy I wanted it to be glowing and very high key," he says, "whereas I wanted to keep a low key in the Empire State Building since the higher key would show it to be made of metal and would have been a dead giveaway. "Also, I lit it flat against what appears to be the sky but in reality is just a piece of cardboard. In a slightly moving image I may use very shallow depth of field so as not to capture the whole object and can still blow it up from a 3/4" object to a final print 16x21" with no detail lost. Too, there are times I will place the object on film and blow it up. In that case I am working with a projection of my subject. With my penlight I paint around the object until I have what I like, then enlarge it. Finally, everything is printed on a rich platinum background."

The beautiful softly sculpted edges of each print are the result of the Polaroid film Lopes uses to create a framing that will finish the picture around the solid background. The border adds to the suspense of the photograph and no two will appear alike because of the emulsion.

Printing Controls And Intuition
The printing is always critical. In too light a print the subtle change in the shapes and textures are lost. If it is too dark, the glow is gone and the final image is but a group of shapes. "These are strange objects to me," Lopes says. "I pick up things that are alien and often eerie, things I don't always recognize. With the flower from the maple tree, I picked up about a hundred in my yard looking for one that was right. In the final image, the intricate veining creates the character. One of my favorite macro images is of a dead poppy," Lopes says. "I found it in the fall, lying on the ground in this position like a dance pose. It became anthropomorphic.

"Depending on how much I light an object and how far down I print it, one sees more or less. There is a lot of serendipity to all of this, very much seat of the pants, since when enlarging such a small object I have to visualize what it looks like larger. Then, in a photogram, I need to anticipate how the lighting will affect each part as it goes through the object and imagine what is happening on the other side. It is only when I feel what the final image will be that I can visualize my platinum contact print."

Platinum Printing Studio
There is a philosophy in Lopes' work that has persisted and been nurtured since 1976 when he joined photographer Richard Benson in Rhode Island to open his first printing atelier, producing portfolios of silver and platinum prints for Aperture from the works of Edward Weston and Paul Strand. It has been an uphill climb, working in platinum as Horst P. Horst's primary printer until his death as well as producing portfolios for notables such as Ruth Bernhard, Mary Ellen Mark, Helen Levitt, Margaret Bourke-White, Herb Ritts, and many other noted contemporaries.

But it is in his own quiet work where Lopes shines. First came his collection and book on the Vietnam Wall, the images recently purchased by the Art Institute of Chicago, followed by a collection and book, Living With Aids. Among his most outstanding and ongoing body of work is a series of horse pictures. For me it is there that his passion for photography reveals itself in a spectacular way. In one moving image a mare shields her foal with her tail from the intrusion of Lopes and his camera. In another unforgettable picture horses restlessly wait their turn by the gate at a rodeo in Maine.

New Work
In this new body of macros and photograms Lopes has taken his creative talent to another level. Surely he has mastered the technique long ago but the earlier work involved people emotionally and he now feels he has taken that part of his career as far as he cares to. This documentary phase ended when he finished photographing at the World Trade Center after 9/11. "I did that work of 9/11 for very personal reasons," he says. "I was so angry about what had happened and making the pictures was cathartic.

"I am no longer interested in relying on the emotion in a situation. I was careful not to interject myself in any of that work. Now I am interjecting myself a great deal and I want to tap into other interests I have like science, physics, and architecture."

The current series is private work for Lopes. The literal aspect is diminishing. They are very contemporary though the platinum process combines the old with the new, presenting contemporary images that hark back to the masters in photography.

"In this new work I don't want to do anything that is just a bigger version of itself," Lopes says. "I want the object to transpose itself into something else, more interesting than its original self in a way we would never see it in
its microscopic size. It must have its own voice. Imagine walking on a beach and seeing this small rock with a face on it. It happened because my mind is now tuned into seeing these things and I always question what will they be when I finish them. However, I don't want the work to be so personal that I am the only one to appreciate it. I want people to have a new understanding--to wonder."

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