“My life has been defined by chaos,” writes photographer Ross Sonnenberg. This is no exaggeration. A diagnosis of systemic lupus and the subsequent forfeiture of a career in film left Sonnenberg on shaky ground. But it was also this chaos that gave birth to what he calls the “stars and nebulae” of his photograms.
I hear an echo of Nietzsche in Sonnenberg’s story: Ich sage euch: man muß noch Chaos in sich haben, um einen tanzenden Stern gebären zu können. [I say to you: one must still have chaos within oneself to give birth to a dancing star.] And I see in every image the traces of that dance—the volatile choreographies, the manic rotations, the beautiful improvisations of light. It’s not always ideal—chaos—”but when it works,” says Sonnenberg, “it’s magical.”
My life has been defined by chaos. Twenty-four years ago I was getting ready to start film school and embark on a career in the film industry. That dream came to a crashing halt when I became ill with a debilitating disease. It took over eight months for the doctors to figure out what I had. It turned out to be Systemic Lupus. I had to undergo chemotherapy to stop my immune system from killing me, and I had to say goodbye to my dream of filmmaking.
It took several years to get my disease under control. When I was finally able to get back to being functional I still had all these creative ideas in my head, but no outlet for them. I started painting, abstract forms with tons of color. Some were expressions of pain that still wracked my body, some expressions of loss, and yet others were expressions of love.
After several years of making art on canvas, I moved toward photography, because I have always seen in pictures. I have never been a traditionalist, and that was evident in my photographs from the beginning. My first series was a combination of images. Taking color positives, and piecing them together to create something wholly unique. I used rough surfaces together with soft images, again creating expressions of chaos.
I’d become fascinated with photograms, reading all I could on the topic. I discovered artists like Adam Fuss, Susan Derges, and especially Marco Breuer. Each artist’s work was completely unique, yet they were all using a similar process. Around the same time, I’d also become intrigued by the photos taken via the Hubble telescope, wondering if it was possible to create my own galaxies through the photogram process.
So I exposed color photographic paper and developed it in complete darkness. I do this in my high-tech darkroom (my garage). To get the textures, forms, and colors I use many different materials. I use sand that I place on top of the paper in different ways to create what to me look like pinpoint stars and nebulae. I use colored gels which I cut into pieces and throw on top of the paper to create color. I use colored plastic lunch plates to create circular color patterns. Sometimes, I poke holes in tinfoil and place it on top of the paper. And the different types of fireworks I use (firecrackers, bottle rockets, ground flowers, fuses, etc.) are the light source.
Remember, this has to be done in complete darkness. I lay out all my materials in advance, so I know where everything is. After the exposure comes development and fixing. Normally, you would put the paper through a processor, which is fairly easy; unfortunately, the color temperature of fireworks is very high, so I have to develop the work by hand. Then comes the guessing game of how long to keep the exposed paper in the developer before fixing the image as not to over or under expose it. Even in the most controlled situation, the images are mostly made at the whim of the light source. Not an exact science, but when it works it’s magical.