I went to school in the Midwest, Kenyon College, and remember walking through town as evening fell, the dark slanting in across the grass, the last bit of sun picking up cheap decorations and toys scattered in the yards. In October, witches and goblins fluttered, and jack-o-lanterns flickered from windows as the leaves turned orange and brown then fell. Though I never returned to Kenyon, a photograph by Coleman Downing brought those memories back to me across the space of years, proving the ability of photography to capture, as perhaps no other medium can, the small but significant moments of everyday life.
That image of a ghost, spidery and pale, hung in a corner of the 2014 Bushwick Open Studios Benefit Exhibition. Though monochrome, it was quietly edgy and held its own on a wall of bright paint and bold design. I couldn’t tell if it was a photograph or an etching, and I didn’t much care. But as I went around the room, it stayed with me, calling up those half-forgotten memories.
Downing was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1986. Though the Sooner State is not generally thought of as a creative hub, his father worked in advertising and his grandparents had a substantial art collection, exposing him early on to visual ideas. He learned photography through a free but intensive summer program for teens that he attended from 2003 to 2006. It was at the point, Downing said, when the world was “on the cusp of digital” and darkroom skills were still taught. For those drawn to silver printing, the first moment they see an image emerge in an orange-lit tray is a primal memory: something they never forget or entirely get over. Downing is of this ilk and was immediately drawn to the classic B&W work of Eugène Atget and Henri Cartier-Bresson, whom he began to study at the local Borders bookstore.
In his senior year, Downing applied to two schools: a local state college and the Art Institute of Chicago, where he was accepted. But far from clinging to the B&W legend of local great, Harry Callahan, the Art Institute promoted cutting-edge technology. In his sophomore year, the photo department was reorganized, downplaying darkroom in favor of digital. Although Downing does not hate Photoshop, and uses it in his archive work at Tim Howard Management, he has never strayed far from his first love. Ink-jet technology is “just different,” he said, the pigment “sitting on top of the paper, not in the paper.” Silver gelatin has a special beauty and purity, as does the unmanipulated film image.
In a world of souped-up light and over-staged tableaux, there is a refreshing naturalness and sense of discovery in Downing’s work. Photographs are objects, but at their best, portals too. They take us to a world familiar yet heightened that hovers somewhere between what we know and what the photographer imagines. Downing’s beat is the back streets of small towns where the light is natural and the yards and houses ordinary, yet possessed of an unexpected power and beauty that nudges us toward deeper thoughts.
Coleman Downing is participating in Bushwick Open Studios 2015: Coleman Downing + Omnia ex Nihilo, on view at 188 Suydam Street
This article is Part 1 of the “Elegant to Edgy” series, focusing on artists and photographers who work in B&W