Life On Mars

Exploring Roger Newton's Universe

Newton makes photos that look like nothing so much as pure phenomena— explosive abstractions in black and white that give the viewer no reference point in the physical world. It's as if his camera, lost in space, recorded the boiling cosmic stew or dipped somehow into a subatomic stream of raw energy. "If I'm asked, 'What's this picture of?' " Newton says, "I usually say, 'It isn't of, it is.' " He redefines slice of life.

How he does this takes a lot of explaining, not all of it immediately comprehensible. Though Newton makes, and constantly tinkers with, his own cameras, lenses, and film emulsions, he calls his process "very traditionally photographic— it just doesn't seem that way. You may not be able to have a clue what the identity of that thing that sat in front of the camera was, but it becomes really irrelevant, largely uninteresting to know, and really limiting."

Newton has never been one for limits. Born in New Rochelle 37 years ago, he and his family "moved a lot," mostly around New England. His mother died from the side effects of birth-control pills when he was seven and, a few years later, he and his three older brothers and sisters were left to their own devices for weeks on end while his father worked in Manhattan. Under the influence of the high-school kids who hung out at Newton's house to smoke pot and drink, he became "a 10-year-old hippie" and wasn't ready to readjust or fit in when Dad moved the family to Greenwich. "I hate Connecticut and everything that it is," Newton says, and once he graduated from Greenwich High, he headed for New York City himself.

Newton in his studio with a homemade camera and lens; on the wall: his Untitled (1996)
Robin Holland
Newton in his studio with a homemade camera and lens; on the wall: his Untitled (1996)

He took sculpture courses at the Art Students League and, for a semester, at SUNY Purchase. When he returned to Purchase a semester later, the "weird, macho scene" in the sculpture department proved too alienating— especially after months of watching a boyfriend die— and he switched briefly to a major in philosophy before dropping out again. In the year before he returned, Newton got involved with ACT UP and took photos to document its actions, but his first photo course was still a revelation: "An hour into the first class, I was like, 'This is it!' " Asked by the instructor to make a pinhole camera, by the end of the week, he'd made 20, and the woozy, unpredictable nature of the pictures they produced intrigued him. But Photo 1was the beginning and the end of his formal training; he dropped out again, this time for good.

"After a couple of years studying philosophy," he says, "I was very much moving away from the particular to the abstract, the subjective. There was a lot of discussion around issues of uncertainty, and I guess I wasn't really interested or confident in specificity or particularity. I really felt that things were looser, more open, and it would work better for me if they were." But the process was not without its hurdles, nearly all of them self-imposed. To get the abstract, nonrepresentational results he wanted, Newton was determined to construct his own equipment, usually from materials at hand. His lenses have been made from the bottom of a shot glass, bits of plastic from Canal Street, and sliced-up lab beakers glued together around a layer of corn syrup. His first developing sink was a former deli salad bar. Stymied in his search for bigger, better film ("So I could take pictures with these big plate cameras made out of the boxes that refrigerators come in"), he stopped photographing for two years and researched patents while waiting tables.

"I had no chemistry background, but I had been a sous-chef at a natural restaurant," he says, laughing. So it's no surprise that his first attempts at making silver nitrate on a hot plate were nearly disastrous. But he persisted, and soon was mixing up photo chemicals 10 gallons at a time in six inflatable kiddie pools scattered about his studio. Around this time, frustrated with other nontraditional materials (fiberglass, canvas), Newton developed a painstaking method for printing his photos on wood prepared with a layer of gesso. The result is as much a sculptural object as a photograph, combining Newton's first interest with his most consuming.

This sort of fanatic dedication to craft is usually in the service of dry technical perfection, but Newton's goal is considerably juicier: spectacular imperfection, an accident utterly in control. He sees his ad hoc lens system as "a translation device: it allows me to look into parallel universes— things that are only a few steps away from this one but that you couldn't see otherwise. These images, instead of being just recordings of what the world looked like that day, become phenomenal experiences in themselves. Instead of being of the world, they become part of the world."

Oddly, this also applies to the one or two fleetingly recognizable landscapes in Newton's current show. Even in nature, nothing is quite what it seems. "I designed this fancy-ass lens and went out in the world, and this is what it gave me," he says. One small piece, leaning against a bookcase behind Newton while he speaks, appears to be a pastoral view of rocky hills. Newton says that, looking at it over and over, he's discovered a little house in the hills and church steeples and a path through the trees, but if this is an actual landscape, "I was never there." Of another picture, he admits, "I know where this was, but I can't really account for half of what's here. And that's something that's common. Often I look at the film and I have no idea what it is or where I was, and it's really great for me— when I don't know. 'Cause everyone seems to think that I'm keeping it this great secret, but half the time, it's a mystery to me."

And that mystery is what makes Newton's pictures so rich. Like 19th-century spirit photographs, they suggest another world beyond the one we know, another layer of being— or nothingness. Told that it was deeply disconcerting to recognize some concrete thing in these swirling mists, he says he feels the same. "But it could be on Mars," I say. His reply is unhesitating: "I wouldn't be surprised to find out that it was."

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