Some weeks ago I got a call from Dan K asking if I was interested in reviewing his new photo book, “The Latent Image”. I’ll admit, I didn’t consider myself the best person for the task but if Dan was asking, I was listening.

Things took an interesting turn when he told me the idea behind it. You see, it’s not often that you come across something truly unique in photography. As many have stated, “it’s all been done before and done to death”.

Dan’s concept, however, was something I’d never come across before and it was too good of an opportunity to miss. To take from the artist’s statement which accompanied the book:

“One can trace the origins of this piece to Kazimir Malevich’s work “White on White”, but I must also tip my hat to Agnes Martin’s “White Stone”, Jo Baer’s “Untitled (White Square Lavender)”, Joseph Albers “Study for Homage to the Square” and “Bridge” by Robert Ryman. It is conceptual and minimalistic; the ultimate in reductivism, transcending physical art into a statement, a radical departure from the modern trend of zines and coffee table photo books.”

“Embodying Order, Simplicity and Harmony, the piece unburdens itself about being about something else. As artist Frank Stella said “What you see is what you see.” and this applies even if you see nothing and all that engages you is your raw emotional response to the work, even if the image is unseen.”

What exactly does this mean?

Well for a start, the book does not come in bound form. There’s no fancy box or packaging – it comes sealed in multiple black plastic bags, themselves placed in a box of photographic paper with strict instructions: DO NOT DEVELOP.

Granted, this “book” may have been a beta test of sorts but I love the simplicity.

The Latent Image - Box
The Latent Image – Box

Here’s Dan again:

“The apparently blank white paper represents more than its spartan appearance. The art is not represented in the paper itself, but in what happens in the space between the paper and the observer, or in this case the non-observer.”

“However, the paper is NOT blank. Each page (but one) is proudly, painstakingly exposed with a photograph recently made, leaving behind a full latent image with all the information inherent in it encoded by the photonic activation of clusters of the sacred silver halide crystals. These crystals would, if developed, yield interesting images in fine detail with the full range of tone texture and detail of a conventional photograph.”

“Drawing on my Asian heritage, the latent image is pure, unrealised Zen potential. The undeveloped photographic paper represents the gestalt of all possible images that it might hold, and the series represents the story of our infinite multiverse of human experiences.”

“In Chinese philosophy, while the Yin 陰 represents the dark, the yang 陽 represents the light, together they illustrate the interplay of opposing forces giving rise to harmony in an endless endless cycle of the negative turning to positive. Therefore, this work, which is exposed but will never be developed, perpetually exists at the moment between Yin and Yang and is at once poised between both active and receptive in which universe creates itself out of a primary chaos of material energy and its absence.”

Again, what does this mean?

The “book” exists in an undeveloped state. If exposed to light or developed, the latent images therein will be destroyed by exposure or interpretation, the author’s vision left tainted.

As Dan goes on to say:

“The latent image on exposed photographic paper should last at least months, if not longer, yet silently degrades all the while. The ephemeral nature of the latent image echoes our memories, which cannot be seen by others only to slowly fade until at last, we are left unable to recognise even our closest friends and family. And yet, as conceptual art is extracted from the physicality of the object, a work can exist in perpetuity, beyond the lifetimes of the individuals who experienced it first hand, or those who experienced it vicariously through a review or blog post. It is the pure concept of the latent image as a work of art in and of itself that I leave you with.”

“Therefore, this work is created in cooperation with you, the viewer, as you experience the work under safelight. White is no longer white, but red, or whatever your unique network of neurons and synapses perceive that light or lack of light to be, including the noise of random depolarisations of your retinal calls and of neutrinos flashing inside your eyes. All this is hung upon the scaffolding of your visual memory, your expectations and imagination, as you conjure a stream of mental images from the latent images exposed upon the paper, leaving you with a sense of what could have been, thereby conjuring the essential unreality of the human condition.”

So the book exists in a “double-state”:

  • If not developed, the latent images will disappear unseen by human eyes.
  • If developed, the latent images will be directly affected by the printers own perception, which by its mere influence, will yield a result different to the photographer’s intention.

The only way to obtain a pure viewable version of the photographer’s work is to have him print it – something he has expressly decided against doing.

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As “reader” of the book, you may use your imagination to conjure the images contained therein, or do what I did: throw caution to the wind and develop it anyway.

One last word from Dan before we get to my results:

“The first page is the title page and I while I will not tell anyone of the title, it is indeed titled and thus cannot be referred to as an untitled work. The second page would reveal the core of my intention in creating the piece. This is followed by a multitude of images representing a stream of my consciousness, the near-end product workings of my mind, or the observer’s mind. The final page, which is left intentionally blank should be taken as a virgin canvas for the imagination of images that cannot be pictured, nor expressed in the visual medium.”

I’m not a darkroom printer. Not at all. Truth be told, I went out and purchased Paterson trays and AP tongs specifically for this review. My darkroom was my blacked-out toilet and my safelight was technically a “Buddhist LED candle” plugged into an electric shaver socket by way of a very questionable adapter.

For chemistry, I used my usual film development setup (Kodak Stop Bath, ILFORD Rapid Fixer, Kodak Photoflo). I switched out the developer for a half-used bottle of ILFORD Multigrade developer that had been opened a few months before (don’t ask).

Obviously, I went all out and for what it’s worth, here are the results from cover and inner, to the 25 prints it contains. I exposed the title of the book as the title of this article. Although it’s something that wasn’t expressly forbidden by Dan until I received the artist’s statement you see above.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect and if the results I produced are anything close to those envisioned by Dan himself. For what it’s worth, they’ve come out well enough for my tired eyes to want to cut and mount a few into frames to hang on my wall. More than a few, in fact. The photos don’t do the prints justice and if there’s enough demand, I’ll gladly scan them for the archives.

The images here were captured on a recent trip to Cuba and there are a number of stand-out frames (speaking personally). There are elements of my own photography that I see here (detail, texture) and elements that I would like to explore and develop. The street portraits are especially nice (prints 1, 6, 7 and 22 especially).

Have I done something wrong here by neglectfully bringing Dan’s latent images into my visual range? Have I destroyed his work by cack-handedly developing them with neither the experience or the right tools to hand?

This viewing this book is literally a one-time experience. Yes, one can go back and look at the prints again and again, but seeing the prints come to life on the page in “real time” is an integral part of the experience and one I had no choice but bereave you of.

Dan’s states “…this work, which is exposed but will never be developed, perpetually exists at the moment between Yin and Yang and is at once poised between both active and receptive in which universe creates itself out of a primary chaos of material energy and its absence.” 

My feeling? Music is meant to be heard and pictures are meant to be seen. I for one am glad I did.

~ EM

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  1. A great idea. After losing a roll of film to a processing error (mine), I went down an existential rabbit hole thinking about the latent image. I love the duality of it – it exists, but it doesn’t. When I lost that roll I began to think about the shots on it that may have been great (or terrible) and realised that maybe they never really did exist, or maybe they were only ever destined to exist as a latent image. It felt exhilarating to explore this idea, but as always, when I feel like I have had an original thought, someone has just written a book about it! Kudos.