AUGUST 21, 2003
Sugar, Cream, Black and White
The Coffee House Photo Show Phenomenon
By Stephanie Geerlings

wo amenities come together. Photographic arts and coffee join forces with their unique super powers to fight apathy. Chronicle photographer Josh Caldwell’s exhibit of black-and-white photographs,“Empty,” graciously fills space on the back wall of A Cup of Joe coffee house. The show runs from Aug. 1 to Aug. 31.

This isn't a photo of the RED stairwell, but rather one of Josh Caldwell's excellent, intimate and precise photographs on display at A Cup of Joe.

Caldwell began as an exploring architecture student at the University of Utah, but soon found he had a strong response to photography and a precise talent. “When I began shooting, I started noticing all of the things I was doing in architecture,” Caldwell explains, understanding his fate.

The minimalist theme to his artwork, he believes, lends space and quiet to the viewer. “We are always exposed to so many things at once,” says Caldwell of his goal to infuse pensive simplicity back into everyday lives.

Arcane imagery projects from the white space. No matter how many people hum around the coffee shop, these pictures vibrate with the observances made by the photographer alone. Bare elementary school walls and pencil sharpeners resonate the fear of being pushed at recess or being the only one without a jump rope. Soon, the door will open and you will be found out in the hall without permission.

An image titled, “Bed” depicts perfect crisp linen. The pillows may have never been used, just watched by an insomniac too afraid to sleep without a recently deceased lover.

These images relentlessly ask you to define your relation, footprint and breath on the unmitigated surfaces. Visually, we understand the sounds of the represented environments.

“Fountain,” a white porcelain drinking fountain on a white wall, is difficult to represent honestly with black-and-white film. Caldwell spoke about the importance of reading his photographs like they would be seen in real life. He is not an illusionist and the white balancing on “fountain” still causes him some amount of stress. He tries to be as technically precise as the medium allows. Much of Caldwell’s work has a high contrast, but that does not strictly confine him. He will shoot grays and the difficult, monotonous photograph.

He shoots with 100-speed film and uses a tripod to insure everything in the frame is as sharply as possible. The shutter speed varies as much as from one second to an indulgent five seconds.

Each piece is evenly spaced at roughly the width of the frame. The methodical images are all square, hung in simple, white rectangle mats. The frames are 16 inches by 20 inches. Caldwell finds that this contrast of shapes adds to the gallery appeal, instead of putting the square images in square panes. He did all of the framing and matting himself. If he sold all of his pieces, he might just barely break even for material costs.

“I would rather make my photography available than make a profit,” Caldwell says. This illustrates an attitude that keeps most artists out of business school.

Caldwell explains he started shooting 35-mm with a vertical addiction. (Most photographers feel more comfortable shooting horizontally.) As his luck would have it, he found a 20-year-old cubish Mamiya C330. The twin lens reflex camera shoots film that is 2.25 inches by 2.25 inches square negatives. He prefers to print full frame, allowing just a little room for the mat. The photographer’s esteem comes from planning the perfect shot and capturing the image without needing to crop it.

The photos in the show are particularly archival. He uses Illford fiber-based paper, which lends to the softness of the images because it is not covered by a high-gloss plastic coat so it appears almost semi-glossy. The matte board is a type of cotton called rag mat. All of the adhesive for mounting and taping is also time durable. He finishes his prints with Selenium tone, which keeps the color from fading, especially in areas where there is a lot of sulfur in the air.

This particular exhibit shows his obsessive love of right angles. “I print with the edges in mind.” Caldwell chuckles a little nervously as if he is realizing his OCD traits for the first time. “The lines have to run parallel to the edges.”

Caldwell pushes himself in and out of his structured limitations. His work as a photo journalist for RED and The Chronicle has been no exception. He can shoot horizontally or vertically with majestic results. He is a comfortable, laid-back person, but I will bet all of the books on his bookshelves are unrealistically straight.


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