Visual Arts

Britt Madden works with a letterpress and an iPhone. Which one is art?

When talking to Britt Madden about her show opening this Friday at Kaze Gallery, Diversions, which features eight pieces of iPhotography, she reminded me that not too long ago, photographers, "real" photographers, wouldn't have anything to do with digital photography. "There are the guys saying iPhotography isn't art," she says. "I mean, some guys crap in a can and call it art, so the discussion is complicated. Traditional photographers fought digital cameras off for so long and now they all own digital cameras. Traditional artists will always judge new methods."

Madden should know; she's also a traditional artist. Madden creates original prints, based on her own work, with her letterpresses, and some of that work will be at her show. She recognizes the strange dichotomy, in that at one time she participates in a public medium, a sort of low-brow art form, and also a highly specialized medium, and a staple in high-end, or fine art.

"That dichotomy is pretty interesting because what really got me into photography in the first place was the throwback, the old, retro style. Big box cameras and Polaroid," she explains. "I probably only got four pictures out of every roll that I liked and that was part of the aesthetic to me."

The accessibility of the iPhone, however, is what finally drew Madden to the format. "I found myself asking my husband to use his iPhone a lot, because we would be out and I would see something I wanted to capture and wouldn't have a way. So finally he said, 'Let's get you one.' I use the camera just as much as I use the phone. It's made me a more productive artist and people act more candidly toward it."

Traditional photography equipment, Madden says, tends to make people in public feel uneasy and that unease creates tension. "I think the hostility stems from people being self-conscious," she says. "They don't know what you're going to do with the photo, and you're not asking them, and it's an imposition and a violation of their space. There's a casualness with the phone. They don't expect you to use, it or they think you're on the phone."

Madden's may have embraced the changing of the guard more graciously than some traditionalists, but she still values the mastery of a craft. "I am a purist in some ways, and I do appreciate old school techniques," she explains. "I just happen to have an iPhone in my pocket and I just happened to take a picture that I really like. I'm a very nostalgic person and that's why I love those old cameras and why I love printmaking."

The jist of how a letterpress works is that an artist creates an original, either digitally, or by hand. The original is turned into a mould, which is inserted into the letterpress. Each color is printed individually, and the press is adjusted to change how much the print presses into the paper. Madden points people in the direction of this video, to help explain:

" I love the process, the repetition, and the logical steps you take to make the perfect print. It takes years and years to learn how to make a perfect letterpress print, or an Ansel Adams beautiful black-and-white detailed photograph, for that matter. That's the defining difference for me -- having the eye and having the technical skill are two different things. You have to get dirty and inky and stinky with chemicals."

Madden is set to open her own printmaking shop, Banshee Press, in June. Madden says that most shops, because of the intricacy involved in the process, are limited in what they do or charge a lot to do it. Her vision is to keep costs low and run workshops, so artists or locals can come in and use her equipment to create original art. She wants also wants to work with artists and create original work prints to sell.

Madden doesn't feel like her traditional art is in competition with her iPhotography, but she says she can empathize."I mean, I feel threatened by people who can manufacture their own poop," she says. "I've been in the MoMa and seen that. A lot of people can make art that's conceptual, when it's on paper and right in front of you, but when you have to take time to think about every maneuver in that print? It's so beautiful that someone could create multi-layered pictures, and that someone has to really think about it to understand how it was created. And that's different than floating four basketballs in some water."

Diversions opens this Friday, at Kaze Gallery, 3245 Osage St., at 8 p.m. For more information about the show, visit the Kaze Gallery Facebook page, or call 303-445-1558.

To contact Madden, or for information about Banshee Press, contact her at [email protected].

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Tiffany Fitzgerald

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