Nancy D Valladares


Photo/Synthetic is an ongoing artistic investigation into the the material ecologies of the photographic industry, that traces the networks, material flows and chemo-socialities that emerge from it’s production.

Silver particles extracted from Black and White photographic film. 

This project began during a residency in the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation in Germany, where along a group of researchers, designers and architects, I was introduced to the history of the AGFA/ORWO Film factory. I encountered emerging research that addressed the ecological footprint of photography and the indelible traces it has left behind on the surface of the earth.

Installation view at Ralph Arnold Gallery, Loyola University, Chicago 2022. Photography by Gwen Madden

I think of Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida when he writes, “Whatever it grants to vision and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see”. Seen through a material historical context, this quote gains a different meaning: indeed, the mechanisms, structures, networks, and flows of a photograph are designed to remain unseen. Nonetheless, each film grain or pixel hints at an interesting  function of photographs in our largely vision-centric society: that of images as deeply networked artifacts that drive our consumption and capital. It’s here where I’d like to engage with  the environmental and economic effects of silver extraction, as one of the forces that helped image-centric paradigms proliferate.

When we consider the vibrant materials that have been used to produce analogue film— from the trees used to make celluloid, the crushed cattle bone used to create gelatin, to the silver and gold extracted for silver photographic emulsion— every single molecule of matter used to make an image, is intertwined with someone’s labor. In essence, each frame or snapshot has an environmental cost, but who or what pays for this cost remains hidden beneath the ideological occlusions of photography.

Light Sensitive Silver Nitrate solution, Bauhaus Dessau Foundation, 2021.