A lot of Nolan Preece's pictures look like something familiar—aerial views of an unnamed Nevada mountain range, cracks on the surface of an old oil painting, clusters of plant cells, satellite maps of urban grids, or sun rays peeking through dense forests.
The Reno photographer has a solo exhibition at the Lilley Museum at the University of Nevada, Reno, right now, and the lower-floor gallery is filled with lush, somber, heavily textured odes to dark woods, hazy dawns and desert landscapes. But the artworks hanging on the walls are not actually photographs of any of those things. They're “chemigrams,” and technically, they're not actually photographs at all. They're made-up worlds that revere and reinvent the landscape.
To make them, Preece pours photo chemicals right onto light-sensitive paper. There's no camera involved, and no negative. He “draws” with the chemicals, watching the paper react to them, showing darks spots and light spots. He also uses liquids that don't mix with the chemicals—like floor wax, which causes the the oil-paint-like crackles. To make these fantasy landscapes, he also relies on a bit of Photoshop magic and an extremely practiced imagination.
Preece, who retired in 2011 from the art department at Truckee Meadows Community College, has been developing his image-making techniques—along with his environmentalist stance—since he was a child.
Preece grew up in the 1950s in Vernal, a town in northwest Utah, not far from then-new oil fields in Western Colorado. He often hunted and fished with his father, a hospital administrator who was also an amateur photographer.
“He loved Ansel Adams, and he had a 4-by-5 camera, and he'd built a darkroom in the house we had,” Preece said. “He'd have the drug salesman who delivered drugs to the hospital drop off some bulk chemistry, so we could mix all our stuff from scratch with the gram scale.”
In junior high, Preece shot the sports teams' group portraits for the yearbook and developed them himself. He studied photography at Utah State University in Logan, earning an MFA in 1980. But he said that the best art education he got was before college, while he was in the Army, based in Germany.
“I was an attention deficient sort when I was younger,” Preece recalled. “So I wasn't going to be sitting around the barracks on leave.” He went to every art museum in Europe he could get to. “It was better than two years in college,” he said.
After college, in 1981, still in eastern Utah, Preece began photographing for biologists who were writing environmental impact statements for oil companies. He kept the job for 10 years, and he said it opened his eyes to the effects of oil extraction and other environmental issues, such as protecting watersheds.
His forays into the field were punctuated by 10-day breaks, during which he'd make his own artwork. Much of it was straight-up documentary photography, aligned with the “altered landscape” movement that gained steam in the 1970s and ‘80s, bringing pictures of human encroachment on the landscape into the mainstream art world. Preece made detailed photos of things like dams, mines, power plants, riparian areas taken over by freeways, and the Alaska Pipeline.
But sometimes, the weather put a wrench in his plans. “I couldn't go out too easily and photograph in Logan, Utah,” he said. “It was just too cold. It'd get down to -20 degrees for two weeks at a time. I'd just go out there and freeze up, and my camera equipment wouldn't work. So I started playing with chemistry in the darkroom.”
Change of pace
In the early '90s, Preece started noticing climate change in the news. “I started to clip newspaper articles from newspapers,” he said. “I'd get a really good one about every six months.”
By then, he was mixing his chemigram techniques with regular photography techniques. He was also keeping an eye on how the public was becoming more aware of climate change. Eventually, he noticed that it was easy to find several articles a day on the subject.
“I figured I was on the right track,” he said. “I did a whole series of chemigrams on environmental issues.” These pieces included bands and grids of abstractions, with photographs of things like oil pumps collaged into the compositions. Preece was satisfied that he was producing well-resolved artwork with a message that seemed to resonate more and more with the public. But he began to realize that it was not the message du jour among collectors and museums. Sales were slow, and offers of major exhibitions were few and far between.
“People liked the work, but they weren't so much signing on to what I was doing,” Preece surmised. Eventually, his East Coast art rep, Katharine P. Carter, found a way forward.
In 2014, shortly after Preece had a show at the Nevada Museum of Art, Carter asked him to provide an image for her company Christmas card. He sent her a chemigram on which he'd “drawn” with photo chemicals and floor wax. The image looks like a muted winter sunrise with a thick forest of bare trees in the middle ground and a gracefully arcing tree trunk in the foreground. The scene is lonely, even a little apocalyptic, darkly beautiful, without an iota of Christmas cheer.
But Carter mailed the card to 300 museums, and her strategy proved effective. “The phone started ringing off the hook,” Preece said. “I thought, ‘Is that all I had to do was make a landscape?' The floodgates opened. We had three or four museums calling a day for a while, wanting a show. I got about 10 national shows on my resume out of that bunch.”
Preece still has a darkroom in his home—which became a rarity after digital printing took hold. It's filled with vintage equipment, trays for photo chemicals and neatly shelved folders and boxes full of chemigrams that date from the 1970s to the present. Flipping through a three-ring binder, he pointed out images that he's made over the decades. Earlier pieces look like artful blobs and drips. Later pieces look more controlled, resembling mountains, canyons or sunlight glinting off the surfaces of lakes. Preece sometimes revisits the older images, samples them, re-colors them, and Photoshops them into new compositions.
And those 40- and 50-year-old darkroom chemistry experiments aren't the only thing that's come full circle for Preece. Winter's coming up, and while Reno can't compete with Logan, Utah for weeks-long stretches of sub-freezing temperatures, it's cold enough here that he does tend to shoot photos outside in the summer and hole up in the darkroom to make chemigrams once the snow flies.
“I'll probably do a whole avalanche of them this winter,” he said.