Redefining the photograph

Mariah Robertson makes photographs the hard way. For starters, she doesn’t use a camera. When Robertson works, she dons a hazmat suit to experiment with chemicals and processes, and the surprising works that result are often mistaken at first for abstract paintings.

“I take a lot of pleasure in doing the thing that I’m not supposed to be doing,” Ms. Robertson says. Her impulse to break rules has enabled her to expand the definition of photography, which is why her work is part of PhotoPlay: Lucid Objects, this year’s J.P. Morgan exhibition at Paris Photo.

The yes and the no

“Photography involves many aspects that are technically necessary but can extend into a culture of mental rigidity,” Ms. Robertson says. “I’m always trying to test how much I’m holding on to the things I’ve learned—the received ideas about what I should be doing,” she says. “So when I was told that metallic paper was corny, I started using it right away.”

Mariah Robertson (American, born 1975). 34, 2016, Unique chemical treatment on RA-4 paper 84 x 72 inches (213.4 x 182.9 cm), JPMorgan Chase Art Collection

The process Ms. Robertson developed to create works such as 34 (2016) began with an accident: A roll of 40-inch wide metallic photo-sensitive paper was exposed to light. Rather than throw it out, she began experimenting with the developer and the bleach fixer.

To her, these two chemicals constituted “the yes and the no”: One makes the colors, the other stops the development process. “It was like the positive and negative elements were having a fight,” she says.

She found that by manipulating the temperature and concentration of the chemicals, she could uncover the full range of color embedded in the paper. To get the reds and pinks in 34, she worked with a little fixer and developer near boiling point. Cooler temperatures brought out the greens, and she produced yellow from using more fixer than developer.

Do the opposite

When the manufacturer discontinued the precut sheets she used, Ms. Robertson started experimenting with large rolls of metallic paper. Working in the pitch dark, she would cut and sometimes tear the paper. The technique gives a work like 34 a sculptural quality, with its three-dimensional shape folding and curling out at the bottom.

While she was delighted with the effects, she also realized she could be getting too caught up in that one aspect. “I recognized how special the accidents of cutting became,” she says. “I always want to question and not be sentimentally attached to anything. This means pretty ruthlessly saying to myself, ‘Oh, that’s working? Do the opposite.’ So the opposite was to do an entire roll of paper.”

Working with such large sheets of paper presented framing and displaying challenges. She often installs fully exposed rolls of paper, 100 feet or longer, as unframed swaths she adapts to the gallery or museum exhibition space.

In all this, she is working at the interface between “intention and actuality.” “When you plan things too much, they get contrived,” she says. “The wheel of the mind is powerful, but can be limiting. I want to be on the lookout for what is actually happening and be responsive to that. It’s like pushing and then getting out of the way.”

Seeing the colors bloom

Ms. Robertson came to photography because she wanted to document her own performance pieces. She credits her exploration of new processes with an intense period of 10 to 15 years when she steeped herself in learning and exploring traditional photography. She studied on her own, taking night classes at San Francisco City College, interning at a photo lab and consulting with peers.

To title her artwork, Ms. Robertson uses numbers, not words, to counteract our human tendency to make an image out of an abstraction: “They’re just a record of a process,” she says. “But then there is this other really emotional thing that happens, all the colors and shapes with this awe-inspiring pleasure in color that is a whole separate dimension. It’s magical to hear viewers say it is like watching those colors bloom.”