ROBERT SCHULTZ’s RESURRECTIONS
with a micro-interview by Elaine Sexton
ELAINE SEXTON: You are part of that band of makers whose work in visual art follow careers in other media, in your case that of a poet and writer. On the surface, the literary reference, a nod to Walt Whitman and the trope of “leaves,” is the obvious source and subject of this body of work. But what first drew you to making images this way? Maybe in describing the process, you might also say a few words about what came first, the subject or the way of making these portraits.
ROBERT SCHULTZ: Thirteen years ago I walked into a museum in Roanoke, Virginia and saw tropical leaves carrying images appropriated from Southeast Asia’s twentieth-century wars. A collard green leaf the size of an apple held the image of a Buddhist monk aflame in a Saigon street. On another wall a young man photographed by the Khmer Rouge and destined for Cambodia’s killing fields stood in a large elephant ear leaf, as if in a green flame. Superimposed over his chest was the image of a butterfly inverted so it looked like a pair of lungs. All around the gallery there were little resurrections, faces that peered out from their leaves, confronting the viewer with difficult questions. The images struck me hard; I had lived through these wars, and our responses to them had shaped my generation. And then, of course, I thought of Whitman: “Tenderly will I use you curling grass, / It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men, / It may be if I had known them I would have loved them.”
The artist was Binh Danh, the modern inventor of the chlorophyll print process, who lives and works in California’s Bay Area. His parents had brought him out of Vietnam when he was a toddler during the exodus of the boat people after the fall of the South. When I contacted him he answered my questions with courtesy and generosity. I went back and back to the gallery, sitting and looking, jotting notes, starting poems. Now Binh and I have been collaborating for over a decade and have made two art and text exhibitions and co-authored two books.
He and I have influenced one another in a variety of ways. He was not thinking of Whitman when he made his leaf prints so I gave him the poet’s collected works and a reading list; he drew me into the world of photography, taught me his chlorophyll print process, and encouraged me to make artist’s books that combine art and text. When he had a series of residencies at Virginia colleges we took road trips to Civil War sites where he made photographs and I made notes for poems, leading to our 2015 exhibition, War Memoranda: Photography, Walt Whitman, and Renewal. For War Memoranda he provided portraits of American casualties of the Vietnam War made in grass-like Asian chives. He assigned me the U.S. Civil War, and after three years of practice I was able to produce acceptable leaf prints of soldiers using the magnificent Liljenquist Family Collection of ambrotypes and tintypes in the Library of Congress.
A chlorophyll print is a sun print, and the process is simple: a film transparency prepared with a positive image is applied to a freshly plucked leaf and sandwiched between two plates of glass. Exposed to sunlight, the leaf bleaches where the transparency is clear, and the image remains in the leaf’s natural pigments. Though the process is simple, refinement comes with experience using various leaves in varying weathers. On a hot, clear Virginia day a hosta leaf will “develop” in about a day and a half, but a nasturtium or wild violet leaf may finish in a single afternoon. Pulling the leaf from the sun at the right exposure is crucial but difficult to judge without a fair amount of experimentation. The leaf is then dried in a press and treated with UV-protectant spray. The resulting photographs are the leaves themselves, unique as each leaf is unique.
For exhibition, our chlorophyll prints are cast in resin against a sheet of plexiglass and framed. That will be the treatment given to my version of Brady’s wartime Whitman made in leaves of grass when I can figure out how to transfer the grass to a sheet of black plexi without causing it to fall apart. Three of the images included here are photographs of pages in my artist’s book, Face to Face, in which the leaves are pasted onto pages with quotations from Whitman’s poems. To make the six images from the Being Seen series I scanned the leaves, then enlarged and cropped the images which are printed in large sizes onto fine paper.
The tight croppings of the Being Seen series grew out of my experience making the soldier portraits for the War Memoranda exhibition. Working with images downloaded from the Liljenquist Collection, made available online in high-res files, I used Photoshop to repair scratches, simplify backgrounds, and adjust contrast for the chlorophyll print process. I spent hours staring into those faces magnified on my monitor, and eventually they became my familiars, seeming to peer back across the decades, urgent with stories, messages, or questions I could not quite hear. What they had to say, I felt sure, witnessed to the reality of war, to the enormous cost of war even when the conflict is deemed necessary or “just.”
These appropriated images—portraits in leaves—direct our attention to the individual, to the faces of those who chiefly suffer the agonies of war. As Mia Lin memorialized American casualties of the Vietnam War in a wall of names, the walls of the War Memoranda exhibition presented the faces of common soldiers and their loved ones. And the War Memoranda book presents a “gallery” of these portraits, along with Binh Danh’s cyanotypes of the fields where so many fell. I continue this work in my own practice because when we contemplate going to war we must know its reality and reckon its cost. The War Memoranda project is, finally, an act of witness, though we finally must agree with Whitman that “The real war will never get in the books.”
Every photographic portrait of an ancestor is poignant with a sense of elegy—There he is! Oh, he’s gone! it declares in quick succession—but a face in a leaf feels specially charged. We are leaf-like ourselves—numerous and similar, though individual—and we have our seasons, unfolding, changing, and falling. My chlorophyll prints provide a literal embodiment of Whitman’s trope of leaves. After the war he wrote in ”When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”:
O what shall I hang on the chamber walls?
And what shall the pictures be that I hang on the walls,
To adorn the burial-house of him I love?
These leaf prints are the pictures I offer in our own time of seemingly endless war.
Robert Schultz and Binh Danh have been collaborating for 13 years. Their work includes a book of poems by Schultz and art by Danh, Ancestral Altars (Artist’s Proof Editions, 2015), and two exhibitions, “Iconic Memory” at Charlottesville, Virginia’s Chroma Gallery and War Memoranda: Photography, Walt Whitman, and Renewal, which opened at the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Virginia, then traveled to the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, New York and the Phillips Gallery in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Most recently Danh and Schultz issued War Memoranda: Photography, Walt Whitman, and Memorials, a book based on their exhibition, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the poet’s birth. For information on the images from the War Memoranda, see: www.robertschultz.com.