By Samuel La France
…and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.
Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
When Charlotte Pryce won the Douglas Edwards Experimental/Independent Film/Video Award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association in 2013, she explained her practice as follows: “I’m interested in the latent image, or the image within the film, within the chemistry.” I first understood this statement to intimate something about developing film, the act of bringing images brilliantly into being through photochemical processes that, in Pryce’s practice, are performed entirely by hand. I thought of the emulsion’s transformation into a discernible image through its exposure and chemical solidification, and the interim in which it must be kept in darkness, withholding during that time an image that exists but cannot yet be seen. I then began reading this interest in latency extending beyond the image’s initial development, which might include its further manipulation through optical printing, its presentation through projection, its interpretation by the viewer, and its inevitable distortion in the viewer’s memory. Seen in this light, the emphasis on latency seemed to be an invitation from the artist to abandon any presupposition that to make or see an image is to discover or capture it, to unveil its mysteries, or draw out its secrets. For much remains hidden in Pryce’s meticulously constructed images. With a form and significance that flow defiantly between exposure and concealment, her films suggest a rich gulf between what exists to be seen and that which can only be witnessed when mediated through fantasy, or dreams, or apparatus.
A CalArts faculty member whose work is part of Canyon Cinema’s collection and its 50th anniversary tour, Pryce’s interests extend well beyond the cinematic: she is fascinated by the living matter and puzzling phenomena associated with a variety of scientific and speculative disciplines, including botany, entomology, ornithology, natural philosophy, chemistry, magic, and alchemy. Her aim, however, is not limited to whatever truths or revelations can be gleaned from observing and manipulating the objects of curiosity within these fields. Her camera resists the cold objectivity of empirical observation—that tradition of documenting, and, in so doing, dominating nature through various perceptual and mechanical means—in order to try to glimpse the natural world’s unseen and unknown wonders, and to situate those wonders in relation to an array of historical media, from naturalist paintings and biological illustrations to fantasy literature and early experiments in photography. Using that repertoire as a point of departure for her perceptual inquiries, Pryce plumbs the origins of illusion to discover the world anew, and in so doing traces the genesis of new forms of making and seeing.
As evinced in one of her early 16mm films, Discoveries on the Forest Floor (2007), flora and fauna take pride of place in Pryce’s subtly grand project. We observe the unfurling of foliage, the dance-like time-lapse growth of sprouts or tendrils, and the intricate patterns of leaf veins and butterfly wings, all cross-cut in rapid succession to suggest a continuity of movement and matter shared by all living things. Optically printed lichen growths, flashed and filmed in close-up, form tiny, deeply textured topographies. Textbook illustrations of carnivorous butterworts are intercut with the beguiling blossoms of a living sundew, the drops of mucilage on the tips of its tentacles creating heretofore undiscovered constellations that swell in and out of focus: are these perhaps the last impressions of an insect trapped by the plant and struggling in vain to escape, to survive? The relationship between life and death resonates within this contemporary reimagining of sottobosco, 17th-century Dutch paintings of the forest floor that, as Pryce explains, “heralded a first attempt to place plant specimens into a ‘real’ environment as opposed to a vase.” That very question of what is real, or natural, and the underlying tensions between objective and subjective representation, seem at the very core of this early experiment. Incidentally, sottobosco literally translates to undergrowth, the title of a 2011 film by the late Robert Todd (another Canyon filmmaker) whose moving portrait of a blind Barred owl similarly revels in the beauty and cyclicality of the forest floor, all the while casting the artist’s attempt to “capture” the natural world’s subjecthood as something akin to predation. Though her perspective may seem far from the hunt and rooted instead in some idealized altruism, Pryce’s work shares similar concerns that loom large over the act of image-making, with its inherent inferences of things coming into (and, potentially, falling out of) existence.
Developing these themes, Pryce’s next film The Parable of the Tulip Painter and the Fly (2008) makes more explicit the linkages between being and not-being. She begins with a painting of clipped tulips in a vase, which weave and wave as if seen through liquid, an image descended from Joyce Wieland’s Water Sark (1965). We watch as the bristles of a paint brush break through the delicate membrane of a drop of water, pulling and distending it. Pryce juxtaposes her painted tulips with their ostensibly “real” equivalent, the red/white/yellow hues and gentle swaying of the flowers’ flesh conveying their unmistakable aliveness. And so the subject is matched with both its representation and the means of that representation’s creation, a dance between bristle, petal and page, with the camera serving as chaperone. The aesthetic admiration that Pryce shares with the uncredited (and likely long-dead) painter shifts away from these symbols of perennial awakening and life-giving once the film’s other central character—a humble housefly—is revealed. Nestled almost out of sight in the painting at the base of the vase, this painted fly is eventually paired with an image of its “living” counterpart. These twin pests, symbols of the transience of being, seem almost impervious to the trappings of mortality and subjectivity; born from decay, they serve as reminders of the fate shared by the petal, the painter, and the filmmaker herself.
Things can be made and unmade. They appear and disappear. These observations may seem simplistically axiomatic, but we’re compelled by the undeniable grace of Pryce’s work to consider their implications. Curious Light (2010-11) is a remarkably poised film, a beautifully textured portrait of a publication of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, complete with original illustrations by John Tenniel. Vivid colours from Pryce’s meticulous hand-processing give the gloss of the manuscript’s inked surfaces an incandescent glow; light slices through the shadows, the darkness flowing on and off the surface of the page. An illustration of fingertips cut against the fine edges of the book’s pages offers one of those rare tactile reactions to a cinematic image; watching this film, one practically feels the sharp contours of the sheets, the texture of the paper’s complexion. But it’s Pryce’s treatment of Tenniel’s images that are most instructive here: a tardy rabbit, ostensibly elusive but ironically trapped in the image; curious Alice peeking behind a curtain, an allegorical disclosure of the artist’s own inquisitive spirit; and, of course, the Cheshire Cat, revealed through an iris that opens and closes, making the cat appear and disappear, over and again, its body and mouth vanishing in tandem. No smile or trace remains—the artist controls this vanishing act and renders it complete. And with the image of a defiant Alice pulling the table cloth and upending its contents (actually the conclusion of her adventure in Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass), Pryce achieves a symbolic harmony: resolution through disruption.
Though that last reading is an admitted stretch, it does reinforce the constant thread of existential tension that makes Pryce’s films so utterly compelling. Consider the artist’s own description of Looking Glass Insects (2012), which again engages with Caroll’s text and Tenniel’s illustrations, along with plenty of drawings of bugs too: “Delighting in the act and play of observation, the film finds a visual metaphor for the cinematic process in the antics of the original story; making use of magnifying glasses as an optical pun, pointing to the instruments used by both entomologists and filmmakers alike. Yet the insects of the story fade away, just as the observations that appear in the film’s magnifying glass dissolve into darkness when tilted to reflect the ‘natural’ world beyond the book.” As one looking glass sees through the other, the borders between scientific objectivity and personal expression, as well as those between what can and cannot be seen or represented, are thrown into flux. And, as always in Pryce’s work, we remain utterly compelled by what marvels may be lost or hidden as these twin lenses work together to turn the world to black.
Mapping the provenance of Pryce’s images, from texts to found footage to the images she shoots herself, has always been difficult given the heavy optical and chemical processing that the images undergo in her hands. As those distinctions between new and old material become blurred, Pryce’s discoveries become downright miraculous. Such is the case with A Study in Natural Magic (2013). We are, the artist tells us in her description of the film, witnessing an alchemist’s spell. Rings ablaze in gold curl upwards throughout the bottom of the frame, like halo halves tinged with gossamer light, their earthly materiality imbued with a greater cosmic or supernatural significance. Suddenly, a shape appears that recalls one of Lotte Reiniger’s silhouettes. As the aperture lets in more light, we recognize the forms of variegated flowers, sprouts, stems and petals, which drift in and out of view, are given and taken away. Pryce immerses her camera in leaves of grass, the multitude of their colours evoking Brakhage’s oft-quoted speculation about the countless shades of green perceivable to the untutored eye. An absolutely incendiary display of a dandelion seed alight in gold, as if on fire, gives way to the same cylindrical shapes of the film’s opening, this time set as ochre arches occupying the top of the frame, closing off some loop that we hoped never to fall out of.
All things must pass, but they can also be made anew. Pryce’s latest film, Prima Materia (2015), gestures through its title at the formlessness of primeval substances, the original stuff that brought the universe into being. In it we find more of the artist’s stupefying creations. Vessels and coils spin and bend into the earliest forms of light and organic material, giving way to a cloud of golden stardust, its particles exploding into view and then sinking languidly toward the bottom of the frame, thousands of infinitesimal suns setting on a dark horizon that delineates a realm beyond what we can see. That Pryce begins her film with the flash of an old, sepia-toned illustration of a human eye suggests the fulcrum of biological and representational processes that have led us to look both inwardly and outwardly in search of the mysteries around us. Philosopher Thomas Nagel evocatively described objectivity as “the view from nowhere,” a description that might, quite ironically, befit Pryce’s position in offering a radically subjective view of the natural world that pushes the boundaries of human and photomechanical perception. It is admittedly difficult to track those boundaries in a cinema as evanescent as Pryce’s. But no matter; by this point, she has grown comfortable bringing her visions into existence, offering up hints as to their meaning, and then allowing them to come apart and dissolve silently out of sight.
Samuel La France is an arts administrator, film programmer and writer based in Toronto. He works as the Manager of TIFF Cinematheque and has organized screenings and retrospectives for TIFF, Collectif Jeune Cinéma, Pleasure Dome, and Museum London. He serves on the board of the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre, and his writing on film has been published in Cinema Scope, cléo, and MICE.