From the Foreword to Madonna Comix
by Luc Sante
Dianne Kornberg's audacious pictures--it would be wrong to speak of them as mere illustrations--complement Bland's poems, partner with them. They make the volume comix, with an "x" as in Zap, which suggests something unsafe, undeceived, clued-in, and perhaps a bit wicked. Kornberg uses Little Lulu as her building material--Little Lulu, Marge's creation, the canniest and most commanding girl in the medium, who runs circles around blys and parents but uses her powers for good. Atop the stirps,half-effacing them, Kornberg draws and paints. She has a way with the female body, fibing each curve its sensuous and gravitational weight. Her drawing has an ukiyo-e precision and clarity that she muddies for emotion. See how this spread catches fire! That on is manila, seemingly much erased, like a floor plan. That other on over there is the negative, the x-ray. Limbs, beaks, crotches, feathers all tumble over the page. With the backing scrim of comics the ffect is bottomless. What runs throught these pages--words and images, violence and humor, doubt and possession--the sum of them is love.
Luc Sante is the author of Low Life, Evidence, The Factory of Facts, Kill All Your darlings and Folk Photography. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books and teaches writing and the history of photography at Bard College.
Still Life: Objects, Apprehensions and the Photography of Dianne Kornberg
by Terry Toedtemeier
Alhough the lyrics from a song by Willie Nelson may seem an unlikely reference, “Still is still moving to me” is an apt description of Dianne Kornberg’s appreciation for the preserved remains of animal and plant life that she has so rigorously and painstakingly photographed for more than fifteen years. The mysterious beauty of bones, the delicacy of preserved insects, dried algae, pressed plants and other elements of the natural world fascinate her. Beyond this, her work is a meditation on the very act of looking at such specimens and the ways in which they have been presented, labeled and categorized. In search of a profound resonance, Kornberg has brought the essence of these still objects back to life. At the same time, her own deepening curiosity about photographic processes has led her out of the darkroom and into the new digital age.
Kornberg began her exploration of botanical and biological collections when, as she puts it, “a huge gift landed in my lap.” One day one of her students alerted her to the fact that during a faculty cleanup at Reed College, a substantial collection of comparative-anatomy specimens had turned up in a janitor’s storeroom. The specimens, still in their original storage boxes and envelopes, had lain undisturbed for half a century. Kornberg quickly gained access to this collection: the first of many she has investigated.
The photographs that have resulted explore the interplay between two kinds of archival evidence. First, of course, there are the specimens themselves: the bones, butterflies, algae or plants, but in addition there are the trappings that document the process of collecting and categorizing: the boxes, labels, wrappings, mounts and bits of string and tape. These materials, like the objects they protect or identify, are now relics as well, testament to a time when such collections were assembled for education and for pleasure. Though separated from their original purpose, these objects have served as visual treasure troves for Kornberg. The beauty of the bones and bugs, feathers and leaves that she presents in her elegant photographs is made all the more fascinating by the visual context that surrounds them and identifies them as objects of scientific study. Further, these images link Kornberg to a long history of photographs that combine aesthetic with scientific concerns.
The world’s first book with photographic illustrations was a botanical reference volume entitled Photographs of British Algae—Cyanotype Impressions, published in 1843. Its author, photographer Anna Atkins (1799-1871) was a colleague of William Henry Fox Talbot, inventor of the negative-positive photographic process, and of Sir John Herschel, a scientist and pioneering photographic chemist who introduced the word “photography” into the English language. Herschel was the inventor of the cyanotype, a remarkably simple process that produced blue photographic prints using iron salts. The simplicity and permanence of this state-of-the-art process appealed to Atkins, who used it to create photograms-- cameraless prints-- made in direct contact with her botanical specimens.
In her carefully arranged compositions, Atkins made visual records that were both factual and elegant, blending her deep affection for botanical forms with her fascination with the newfound art of capturing their images. In similar fashion, Kornberg blends her love of archival evidence with her curiosity about the myriad possibilities of imaging technologies. But what she also shares with Atkins and later photographers is her desire to get at the heart of the collections themselves—the scientific breakthroughs that led academics and amateurs to assemble such specimens in the first place. Which leads us back to Charles Darwin.
At about the same time that photography was being invented, Darwin (1809-1892) was formulating his concepts of natural selection and of the evolution of life on earth. The intellectual platform upon which Darwin’s ideas were based was quite literally grounded in hard-won principles of geologic time. These concepts stood in marked contrast with religious dogma and its belief in a spontaneous moment of divine creation of the earth and all its inhabitants. By Darwin’s time, Scottish geologists James Hutton and Sir Charles Lyell had refuted a literal interpretation of Scripture and had established that the Earth was not only vastly older than the Old Testament’s Book of Genesis could accommodate, but also that it had been and continued to be in a state of uniform and constant change.
Darwin picked up the arguments of Hutton and Lyell, based on the study of geologic strata, and the evidence of fossil remains of extinct plants and animals. Darwin proposed that, through the course of Earth’s existence, all species had evolved from a lineage of common ancestors. This theory of evolution kindled a revolution in human thought, a sweeping reassessment that fostered a profound appreciation of the relatedness of all forms of life. A key element in the intellectual climate of the era was a fundamental belief in the value of direct observation, and in biology this meant close study of the relationships between specimens. In these connections lay the genesis of new theories. What, for example, might it mean that seemingly very different sorts of animals share remarkably similar types of bones put together in much the same way? How might the imagination embrace the fossil forms of ferns identical to the plants adorning one’s parlor, identical save for the fact that the fossil fronds were ten times larger?
Photography played a critical role in creating graphic taxonomies that were at once scientific and aesthetic evidence. While Kornberg’s forebears may have been primarily concerned with documentation, the images they produced also constitute a rich artistic history. Of particular note is Urformen der Kunst, published by the German artist Karl Blossfeldt (1865-1932) in 1928. A seminal study of the abstract beauty of plant forms, it is considered one of the most important and influential photography books of the twentieth century. Like Atkins and Blossfeldt, Kornberg has navigated a world where scientific discovery and artistic inspiration share in a common appreciation of form.
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In the many statements that people make in response to Kornberg’s art, a common thread emerges in recognition of the deeper mysteries that haunt these photographs:
“There’s a beautiful strangeness to her work.”
“Her subjects take on a new life – they dance, they reach gracefully out to us, they still seem
“The photographs are at once macabre and beautiful.”
“These aren’t just a bunch of pretty, dried flowers – her choices are unusual, challenging.”
”She has a wonderful interest in morphology and structure.”
“There’s an intellectual and anatomical twist to her work, an energy like watching dinosaurs dance.”
“The compositions she creates surely embody the notion of mortality that is at the heart of the still life (nature morte).”
“Compositions that embody mortality:” this formulation gets us close to the fusion of beauty and bittersweet irony in Kornberg’s work. There is a disquieting tension in the simultaneous apprehension of loveliness and death. Understandably, it is difficult to articulate. On the one hand, the word “apprehension” connotes awareness and understanding; on the other, it implies fear and foreboding. Bones and dried plants, beautiful though they may be, remind us of the inescapable tenuousness of life and offer no solace for its passing. Yet there’s the reality of it. Life is a procession of living forms, and in their residues—bones and leaves, feathers and insect wings—lie the material shadows of a succession of generations. The framework of our understanding of life, the experience of our own lives, is simultaneously a defining consciousness and an infinitesimally small part of the whole of it. Deprived of physical immortality, we try to create works that will outlast us and that, in a time beyond ours, will possibly serve to kindle an understanding and appreciation of who we were. Unconsciously, bones and fossils serve a parallel purpose, and their forms are imbued with the richness of their existence. To explore their mystery and beauty brings us to a deeper appreciation of existence, of birth, life and, inevitably, of our own passing. It is this understanding that Kornberg ultimately seeks in her own compositions.
Kornberg herself is awed by the complexities of the materials she has photographed and by her own discoveries as she has worked with them. “When you look at things and they just take your breath away, it’s a very edgy kind of experience,” she notes. The collections themselves demand a lot of her. Those familiar with her artistic practice know that she is tireless, exacting and self-demanding. During the decade and a half that have elapsed from the initial images in Bone Stories (1992-98), her first taxonomic series, to Open Places (2007), her most recent, she has gradually moved from wet-lab analog-image production to digital inkjet printing. During all of this time, she has maintained the higheststandards and meticulous attention to the technical details of photographic image-making. Her feats include hand printing and processing mural-sized, selenium-toned fiber-based gelatin silver prints of such images as Twelve Cats (1992) and those in the Cartwheel Suite (1995).
Kornberg’s series Inchoation (1998-2000) is a tour de force of polychrome photographic printing realized only through countless tests and trial runs of various kinds of photographic printing papers, toners, staining agents, and selective masking. (Because virtually none of the papers she used for this series are still being manufactured, these photographs are particularly rare.) Looking back at this work and remembering how incredibly laborious it was, Kornberg wryly comments that today she could produce identical—or even better—versions of these images using Photoshop software and digital inkjet printing. As she observes, the advent of the digital era came at the perfect time for her. By 2000, she had pushed the possibilities of the gelatin silver print to the limit. After Inchoation, she abandoned her dark room and shifted her creative focus to the computer and the potentials of digital imaging.
Kornberg invested considerable time and resources in mastering “digital darkroom”. As she had with traditional photographic processes, she also began carefully evaluating the look and feel of different papers available for use in inkjet printers. One in particular, Hahnemuhle William Turner, stood out for having a superior capacity to render delicate tonalities and luminous colors. Like working with ink wash or watercolor, ink jet printing on this paper has allowed Kornberg to create images with a kind of illusionistic space that appears to work outward from the picture plane as if the image is lifting right off the page. As she pursued the new medium she also began photographing new subject matter: seaweed. By the time she developed the three series that make up The Marine Algae Project (2004-2005), Kornberg’s digital imaging skills enabled her to work at a creative level far beyond the limits of the traditional darkroom.
Kornberg made the photographs for The Marine Algae Project during residencies at the Whiteley Center of the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Laboratories on San Juan Island. Again, working with specimens in the laboratory’s herbarium was not without its melancholy side. “Collecting in general no longer seems as appealing as it did in an earlier time, when people often indiscriminately amassed large numbers of specimens,” Kornberg says. For her, such collections are a reminder of the alarming loss of species widely reported by the scientific community today --that in a handful of generations, our own species has so altered the environment as to cause a die-off of life rivaling extinctions in the age of the dinosaurs. The series Evidence of Its Occurrence (2005), with its specimen card bearing the ghostly stain of a plant form that is no longer present, offers a poignant echo of this loss.
Open Places (2007) plays off the imagery of faded strips of tape as similarly diminished trappings of the collecting process itself. Beyond being the final series in this exhibition, Open Places marks a point of transition, a shift from a content-dominated aesthetic to one more closely linked to Kornberg’s initial training and sensibilities as a painter. While she is still fascinated by laboratory specimens, over time her interests have, as she puts it “softened” and she no longer seeks the spectacle of subjects like skulls that “speak loudly.” The advent of digital imaging technology has enabled Dianne Kornberg to re-embrace the medium of photography with an unprecedented degree of creative plasticity. With an ability to assign color or value, position or orientation to any or all the visual elements of a photograph, Kornberg is free to explore a world of infinite visual possibilities. She is as excited as she has ever been to be making new work and through she does not know the specifics of where she is going next, she does know that it is back to nature.
Photographer and photo historian Terry Toedtemeier is a photographer and the curator of photography at the Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon
This essay was published in Field Notes: Photographs by Dianne Kornberg 1992-2007, Copyright 2007 by The Art Gym and Marylhurst University, and is reproduced with permission.
by Lois Allan
Dianne Kornberg’s large black and white photographs of animal and bird skeletal remains arouse contradictory, and often chilling responses to the cool beauty in what is generally considered to be grisly subject matter. In their clarity of detail her “bone pictures” are reminiscent of scientific documentation, but that is merely the beginning of their associative resonance. Literally images of death, they are powerfully emotive, and at the same time they bring into play stylistic and theoretical issues in contemporary photographic art. Her work challenges the acceptance if images, in particular, photographic images, as signifiers of any absolute truth. As she explores the mental space between the reality of the subject and the reality of the photograph her “truth” becomes one of paradoxes: chaos and order, reality and illusion, intellectual distance and emotional immediacy.
While they are reminiscent of the memento mori tradition, Kornberg’s subjects appear not in a context pertaining to nature nor to their death but as sculptural objects arranged in the studio and re-created in a formalized, two-dimensional idiom. For example, the entire surface of the large gelatin silver print titled 12 Cats is filled with massed skulls, vertebrae, femurs, tarsals, and all the rest—hundreds of cat bones—as densely composed as the drips in a Jackson Pollock painting. By photographing from directly above the arrangement and lighting it evenly Kornberg eliminated contextualizing references as well as hierarchical values, thereby heightening both visual and associative ambiguity.
Diptychs in a series titled “Bone Stories” and exhibited in 1993 are based on a long stored collection of specimens used comparative anatomy classes at Reed College in the 1930’s. Each diptych, like Raven Skull, juxtaposes two images of the same subject, one of the label on the storage box and the other of the box’s contents which the label identifies. By using identical lighting, size of prints, and close-up, centered compositions in both photographs Kornberg again cancels a hierarchy of importance; the image of the label and the image of the bones are equally weighted signifiers. References to naming, to classifying, preserving, i.e., methods of control, are pared with potent images that represent the ultimate lack of control over nature’s most inexorable process. Ironically, the photographs themselves are evidence of the same contradiction; their authority as evidence of the real world is opposed by their authority as artistic inventions.
While almost all the recent work is black and white, Kornberg has used color in the past, and occasionally, when “the subject demands it,” as she says, still does. Her academic background is in painting, which made color the obvious choice when she turned to photography, and now undoubtedly influences her orchestration of values and contrasts in black-and-white. Not long after graduation she abandoned painting for the camera’s direct relationship with what the eye sees. Self-taught in photographic techniques, she prefers still life because of its potential for “fooling around with ideas,” and also because it offers the ability to determine every aspect of the process, from concept to final printing.
Kornberg’s early photographs often were embellished with collage and hand coloring. Gradually, elements added to the print disappeared and instead, were incorporated into the set-up for the photograph. For a portfolio related to the diptychs of “Bone Stories,” she photographed small bones distributed and “systematized,” within grids she had constructed of white thread on a black background. Emulating archeological practices, she utilizes the grids as a device to focus attention on the significance of placement.
Kornberg grew up in Richland, Washington, home of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, and as a child was attracted to science. Her large collection of bones, small skeletons, shells, and insects, which began when she was a high school student, holds multiple fascinations, scientific, aesthetic, and poetic. In Native American mythology there is a character called “the old Skeleton Fixer” and like him, she seems to be searching for the soul that once inhabited the bones.
Lois Allan is a critic amd arts writer and author of Contemporary Art of the Northwest and other notable publications about visual arts.
This essay appeared in Contemporary Art of the Northwest, published by Craftsman House, Copyright © 1995 Lois Allan, and is reproduced with permission.
by Terri Hopkins
Dianne Kornberg makes exquisite photographs of the skeletal remains of animals. Bones are fragmentary records of the complexity of life. They provide an incomplete set of slues from which even the knowledgeable observer can deduce or induce only the basics of an animal’s appearance, behavior and habitat. Still, bones provide incontrovertible evidence of a life lived and starkly beautiful testimony to the variety and richness of life’s forms.
Although she has trained formally as a painter, in 1980 Kornberg began making photographs. She had been collecting bones and it became increasingly important to her to document her finds. The camera proved a better tool than paint and canvas for Kornberg—a better tool, because it lent itself more realily to the production of precise records. Over the past two years she has produced several new bodies of work under the general heading of Bone Stories. This exhibition contains black and white photographs from two of these series.
The Comparative Anatomy series documents an anatomy collection used over fifty years ago in classes at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Access to the collection, assembled by student and faculty biologists, gave Kornberg the opportunity to examine and photograph the ones themselves, and to record those earlier collectors’ methods of sorting, labeling, and storing. Kornberg found skeletons stored in candy, cigar and scientific supply boxes. Labels were often pasted over brand names, and other text, and may or may not (with humorous and ironic results) still refer to the contents of the box.
Kornberg photographed each container closed and open and presented most of the resulting photographs as diptychs—the box and its contents side by side. She printed the images larger than life size, in some cases very large. Kornberg presents the work in various ways including unframed under glass, boxed as a portfolio and in deep beveled window mats with elegant and substantial dark frames.
Through many aesthetic choices, the Comparative Anatomy series is a document that directs our eye to the means employed to preserve, to frame, and to share evidence, and focuses our thoughts on the meaning of the evidence preserved.
In photographs from the second series, including Dog Skull, Two Bobcats and mural-size Twelve Cats, the artist takes a different approach. She arranges the collected bones and presents them with a minimum of context. In the first two, she presents the skulls on a seamless white ground, enhancing their subtle three-dimensionality by split-toning the prints with selenium. The skeletons in Twelve Cats fill the frame. She is not concerned in these three photographs with presenting human activities in relationship to the bones, but instead seeks to focus our attention as directly as possible on the bones themselves, on their beauty and on their implications.
Although the three photographs share an austerity of presentation the images function very differently. In Dog Skull, a single skull represents a species. The photograph of two skulls in Two Bobcats is instead evidence of individu8als, and Twelve Cats documents the existence and passing of many individuals, of a population.
Taken together Kornberg’s fascination with skeletal remains is not morbid. It is a fascination with the beauty of these bones and the evidence they provide of the intricate variety and fecundity of life. These photographs document the fact that life is both infinite and finite in its particulars.
We have come to mock the nineteenth century urge to describe and order the natural world. As we have distanced ourselves from that world and as it disappears, there has been a movement among artists an writers to re-chronicle its complexity. Kornberg is a visual artist whose instincts and drives parallel those of writers Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams, and John McPhee. For all of these artists it is not enough to say, “here it is,” in the manner of the biologist or geologist, it is also important to state the facts in a manner that assigns value and compels wonder. Kornberg’s photographs are somber celebrations of the mystery of animate natural world.
Terri Hopkins is Director of The Art Gym at Marylhurst University, Marylhurst, Oregon.
This essay appeared in the exhibition catalogue, RE-presenting the Object: Evidence, Notes and Observations, Copyright © 1994 by The Art Gym, Marylhurst College, and is reproduced with permission.