Chemicals, Cameras and Conviction: A Snapshot of Jeff Sass’s ‘Katastrophi’

 In Culture, Interviews

From the time his grandmother bought him a $3 Diana camera from Ben Franklin, Jeff Sass has been challenging the complacency of contemporary photography. “Katastrophi,” the most recent example of his artistic experimentation, opens at the Good Weather Gallery in Edwardsville on Feb. 8.

Having previously used his camera to capture forgotten places and evoke feelings of nostalgia, Sass emerges from the dark room for his latest show with the zeal of a mad scientist and the excitement of an artist walking a fresh path to new places. Intrigued by tintypes, time and technology, this recent output represents a profound exploration of his craft, filled with happy accidents and chemical reactions.

Sass’ first solo show in nearly three years marks a stylistic maturation for the artist. He has employed a variety of techniques to develop and display his new work, which incorporates multiple components including photographic media, gold leaf, paint and thread printed on Kodak paper from 1977.

Billed as a “collection of imperfect images,” “Katastrophi” features 23 pieces that straddle the ethereal and enigmatic, underscoring Sass’s confidence in changing gears and challenging existing preconceptions of photography. Shedding his secret identity as an educator in the Jennings School District, Sass spoke with Guided: St. Louis about this new exhibition.

Guided: How did the show come about?
Instagram. Brooke Peipert, the gallerist at Good Weather Gallery, saw some of my stuff and asked me if I would like to do a show in 2020.

Guided: Do you think getting a show via social media is changing the rules of how artists approach a gallery?
It was always scary contacting a gallery and asking if they wanted to see my work. I’ve never been good at that. It’s frightening. Social media has changed things a lot. If you are a gallerist, it is a non-threatening, easy way to investigate what is out there. As an artist, social media is another way to demonstrate that you have a solid body of work that is identifiable as uniquely yours.

Guided: How would you describe your work in this show?
It is an abstraction of photography, more like an expressive abstraction of conventional photographs. There is more texture to them than what you normally see. They are not just plain black and white photos, because even where I didn’t touch it with cyanotype or paint, the paper picked up all kinds of warm tones just by being abused. I was working very loosely, seeing what would happen if I did this or that. For example, I would have some photographs in a tray, and I wondered what would happen if I poured hydrogen peroxide in there? It helped melt the emulsion off of my big negatives. Basically, it was a lot of throwing things around and seeing what would happen.

Guided: What is the meaning behind selecting “Katastrophi” as the title of your show?
I picked “Katrastrophi” because I am big on entomology and the origin of words. Photography is Greek for “writing with light,” so I wanted to pick a word that was a counterpoint to what is considered “good” photography these days. In this case, good photography meaning digital, which is ultra-sharp and ultra-resolved. So I chose another Greek word, catastrophe, but with a K. Ks are funny. In this case, it also means to ruin or undo. I am using it to undo the notion of what a good photograph is, and I am certainly ruining a lot of vintage photo paper to prove it.

Guided: How do the works presented in “Katastrophi” make an artistic statement?
It definitely is a fist raised in the air. It also is a more cohesive collection of my work. I am glad to hear that Kodak produced double the amount of film than they did last year because I don’t think film should be considered a dying art form. Much in the way that painting wasn’t considered a dying art form with the advent of photography. It’s a different means to an end. I choose to work with chemicals and my hands rather than zeroes and ones.

“Typewriter and Veils,” 16×20 inches, mixed photographic media, gold leaf and paint.

Guided: Discuss the theme of this show.
It is a unifying body of work because all the things I have shot are iconic, common mechanical items. I had to choose a soup can as a wink to pop art because I have been pop arting for a while. I included the typewriters and cameras because they have connections to recording history.  To some extent, this work is about the passage of time.

Guided: What was the timeframe from your initial concept to the completion of pieces displayed in “Katastrophi”?
Overall, this particular show took over a year from photographing the images to creating individual pieces. It was process oriented. A lot of these pieces are assemblies where it takes more than one photograph to make them and get the effect of floating one image above another.

Guided: What are your thoughts on digital photography versus traditional photography?
The thing is, there has always been this wonderful dialogue. … The painters argued ‘Where is the original handmade object in a photograph?’ The negative comes out of a camera—which is obviously a unique item—and the print is just a duplicate. Nowadays, the argument for digital art is ‘Where is the original?’ It exists somewhere in a hard drive consisting of zeroes and ones. So the argument hasn’t lost any validity, it has just gained a lot of new things to argue about. I just want to stay in the argument. This is valid too. I am not saying this is any more valid, but it is different because it is handmade.

Guided: Is there a difference in showing your work in Edwardsville rather than in St. Louis where you’ve had previous shows?
I was intrigued because Edwardsville is a college town, and I am hoping that in an academic world it gets more attention than it would have in another gallery here. I mean, St. Louis is a college town too, but it is a college town that artistically focuses on a few different institutions, and if an artist maybe isn’t connected to those institutions, there is not as much attention. The area that this gallery is in is sort of like The Loop. There is a lot going on. The gallery itself is across the street from the Wildey Theatre. I could not ask for a better venue.

Guided: Where do you see your work going after ‘Katastrophi’?
I love shooting people. I love doing portraits. There is so much you can do with the style I am working in. There is more still life to be done, certainly. I do not find myself limited by subject matter working in this way. When I started out 20 years ago, I wanted to do something that somebody else could not do with their plastic disposable camera. Today, I want to do something that somebody else cannot do with the phone in their pocket. With work like this, I want to pull everything back and make everything by hand.

The opening reception for Katastophi is Feb. 8 from 6-9 p.m. at Good Weather Gallery.  A gallery talk with Jeff Sass takes place on Feb. 29 at 1 p.m.

Featured image: “Contax 1,” 11×14 inches, mixed photographic media, thread, gold leaf and paint, courtesy of Jeff Sass.

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