Irish photo-artist Jean Curran is causing a stir in the New York art world with her reworking of stills from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. She’s come a long way since her days on the newsbeat in Cork, writes
PHOTOGRAPHY is one of the many creative practices that has been completely transformed by digital technology. Photos have become ever more ephemeral, with billions of images, enhanced, memefied and filtered, uploaded daily. However, for some practitioners, the digital will never replace the darkroom — for them, photography is still an art, a process in which the time and effort expended in achieving the final result is a reward in itself.
Photographic artist Jean Curran is firmly in the ranks of those creative hold-outs, one of only a handful of people in the world who practises the specialised and time-consuming art of dye-transfer printing.
After a traditional darkroom process, Curran takes the prints and applies paint or different chemical methods to achieve the final result.
“When I make the second print, I am able to come in by hand with my paintbrushes or different chemistry and either take away or add things. That is the part I love, that engagement and coming between the layers of the photograph, doing it by hand and making it as close to painting as possible. Often in my prints, a lot of it I will have painted in myself or increased the density or vibrancy of a colour by doing it myself by hand. It sounds simple but it takes about a week to do one print.”
Her most recent work, The Vertigo Project, is currently showing at the prestigious Danziger Gallery in New York where it is creating a real buzz among art and photography aficionados alike. The exhibition features a series of selected frames from an original Technicolor print of the 1958 Hitchcock classic, which are then printed using the same dye transfer process by which the movie was made.
Curran, who grew up near Kilmacthomas in Co Waterford, came to the craft via a career in photo-journalism, working in Dublin, London, Kenya, Afghanistan and Dubai. However, it was in Cork that the seeds were sown for her work as a photographic artist. When she left school, she did some travelling and on her return, enrolled in the photography diploma in St John’s College in Cork, a decision that changed the course of her life.
“Being able to use the darkroom, I knew I had found my thing. I absolutely loved it. There are very few colleges in the world that you can print your own work in both black-and-white and colour. Getting that basis in photography has stood to me through everything I have done.”
Curran went on to work for a small photographic news agency in Cork, which gave her the grounding to pursue a career in photojournalism.
“I did the bingo calls in Killeagh, following the Lord Mayor around, all of that,” she laughs.
Following a ten-year stint in Dublin working in national news, Curran took her camera further afield.
“I moved out to Kenya in 2010 because I really wanted to break into international news but when I got out there and I saw the life of a photojournalist, living out of a suitcase and staying in the worst accommodation possible, I decided it was not what I wanted. All the time, I was thinking that ultimately, I wanted my work on a wall in a gallery.”
Curran returned to Ireland, doing a masters in fine art photography at the University of Ulster in Belfast.
“Even when I was doing that, I was interested in finding different ways of printing. I kept on thinking that I wanted to have the experience I had in the darkroom in St John’s.”
Curran’s epiphany came when she was completing a project photographing soldiers in Afghanistan.
“I went down a rabbit hole in my mind… thinking about how could I open up the photographic print, have more of a presence within the creation of it. I took the pictures in Kabul, flew to Dubai, went into a darkroom, processed the film myself, made my black-and-white print and then flew back to Afghanistan where I got a local portrait photographer who would have hand-coloured photos before there was colour film to come out of retirement and hand-paint these pictures for me.”
The end result formed the exhibition From Both Sides now, which led to Curran pursuing dye-transfer printing.
There were many challenges in taking up a process that was in significant decline but Curran was unperturbed.
“There are only four or five of us still operating in the world — and most of the materials are obsolete. But I decided come hell or high water I would figure it out. That is what brought me to London — I knew there was somebody there who had some materials so I went over and figured it out. Now I make most of my chemistry myself. I’ve become as self-sufficient as possible.”
When Curran started researching the dye-transfer process, she discovered it was how many early colour films were made.
“I immediately thought about how I could take a frame from an early technicolour film and make a print of it. I did some research and realised no-one had ever done this before.”
She eventually came to Alfred Hitchcock’s films.
“I looked up Vertigo and I realised how there were so many different themes running through the work that you wouldn’t be aware of unless you studied cinema. The more I looked into it, the more I realised the whole film was an analogy for cinema and these actresses who go to Hollywood but no-one ever wants them to be themselves, they always want them to be a fantasy. I thought there was a huge amount of honesty in that. Vertigo is so intelligent and so cleverly put together. It is beautiful.”
Curran’s tenacity came to the fore once again when she decided to undertake the Vertigo project. She first had to get agreement from both Universal Studios and the estate of Alfred Hitchcock.
They’ve both been supportive, but when Curran approached Universal, there were some raised eyebrows at her request.
“I contacted them and said ‘right, I want 25 frames from Vertigo’. They were like, ‘what?’ They said people ring them up looking for five-minute clips of Jaws or Jurassic Park — nobody had ever wanted 25 still frames. The big problem for them was taking the movie onto their server, it takes up a huge amount of space, and then the time to go through and find the exact frame. That’s what we did for the first five and after that, they sent me a proxy of the movie, which was beautiful because you could see where parts of the movie had been cut and edited, and all those little marks and writing on the film, fantastic details.
“I was able to stop at the exact minute and second that I wanted the frame from. They sent me on the high-resolution scans and from those I make the negative.”
The Vertigo Project is just at the end of its run at the Danziger Gallery in New York, where the prints, in editions of ten, have been selling out, with prices starting at $6,500. Curran is delighted at the positive reception the exhibition has received.
For Curran, dye-transfer printing has fulfilled her need to pursue a craft that leaves a mark, while purposefully moving in the opposite direction from digital technology.
“The value of a photograph has become really disposable. I wanted that time-consuming process where you were making something that was going to have a value because of the craft involved, learning a skill in order to do it. I don’t go around with my iPhone taking loads of pictures then edit them on the phone and upload them and think that makes me a good photographer.
“No, what makes me a good image-maker is spending time engaging with the practice and thinking about what each image needs to say.”