We spend our lives thinking that what touch, hear, smell, taste and, most of all, what we see is reality.
I know what I saw.
Ron Moultrie Saunders has spent the last decade of his artistic career debunking these myths. He uses the camera to extend our vision, exploring the nature of things with alternate eyes. For Ron, this is introspective work. After losing both parents within two years, his photography, which had been more “outward looking”, transitioned and became more “inward looking”. He began to use photography more as a way to think about his place in this world, as opposed to a way to chronicle the world around him.
With plants, the photograms expose their inner architecture. He calls the series: “The Secret Life of Plants” and it is an on-going project. He ventures into uncharted territories. And, like the physical explorers of earlier times, it is not just about seeing what is out there. Exploration is as much about the explorer as it is about the object of the exploration.
Ron attended the University of Pennsylvania, graduating with a degree in Landscape Design in 1996. His early work was very much informed by his design career with his photography focused on landscapes and travel. In 2000, after his parents passed away, he began volunteering with children in the classroom as an art educator. It was there that he started experimenting with photograms. It was a fun art activity for the kids. For him, however, the process was transfixing. The way that light worked in photograms captured “an indescribable beauty and magic that exists in nature and within us”. He described to me a photogram of a strawberry flower. The petal was white and the light went right through it in an almost gelatinous way; then, the tiny little hairs on the stems came out. The smallest, unnoticed details can move into the spotlight. It is not just seeing in an alternate view – it is, for Ron, re-envisioning.
Photograms are essentially a camera-less photographic process. Objects are placed directly on the photo paper. An enlarger is the light source. A shadow of the object is captured. Then, since the object is white where the light did not go through to the photo paper and black where it passed through; that image is reversed using the initial image as a negative in a darkroom. The work is experimental. Chance is embraced. Unexpected results are, in many ways, the most revealing. And, unlike many photographic processes, the feedback is immediate.
One gratifying side effect of his work with plants has been that it has inspired people to become more aware of what is around them. Friends are always bringing him interesting things to “photogram”. One of his favorite gifts was oak leaves that had been partially eaten. People think he made the patterns, but the patterns were, in fact, made by leaf eaters.
Ron is one of the artists featured in an exhibition at Arc Gallery opening this week. The exhibition is titled: “FourSquared”. As the name implies, there are 16 artists in the exhibition, each of whom was asked to produce 16 works. It is a constrained format. All the works must be small (12”x12” or smaller). The works must hang together coherently, but also work individually. For the exhibition, Ron has created 16 images of insects, plants, fruits and vegetables. In addition to continuing with his photogram experimentation, this exhibition has further inspired Ron to experiment with alternative printing, as well. The works are printed on bamboo.
Ron has also had several recent exhibitions of a new “body” of work (literally). Ron has been placing himself directly on the paper. This series is called “Someday We’ll All Be Free”. It has been a way to document his heritage and culture. He utilizes his own body, various objects and the natural world to “symbolize his thoughts, feelings, and his place in the world as a Black American male”.
I often lead these artist profiles with an image of the artist working in his studio. The image that leads this article is definitely that. “Middle Passage” is a work that was made by placing his own head on the glass laid over the photo paper. He created a sense of motion by sweeping his hair over the glass. And, the unexpected result of using the glass as an intermediary surface was tiny bubbles on the surface, almost as if he was swimming under water. The name, “Middle Passage” refers to the passage over the Atlantic Ocean where slaves were transported from Africa to America. Many perished and were disposed of at sea. The work is one part of his very personal exploration of his history.