A short appreciation of David W. Lewis MPA, CPA, M. Photog, CR. Photog., ….
The way photography is practised gives rise to many interpretations of what it is to see. For each genre there are many methods and for each method many styles. It’s what makes photography so interesting 1.
Let’s take Bromoil 2. Bromoil pictures are often characterised in a certain way. We are used to seeing Bromoilists tackling subjects that are ‘typical’ for Bromoil. We see pretty harbours, trees, characterful faces, the ‘picturesque’ for want of a description. This follows from the era when Bromoil was popular among the pictorial photographic salon exhibitors in the first half of the twentieth century. But of course there is a wide range of styles within the Bromoil method covering straight pictures through to impressionism and on to expressionism and even the gothic.
Enter David Lewis, who has done much to eschew ‘the typical Bromoil’. Early in his career David worked in the pictorial idiom but for the past several decades he has been documenting de-industrialization and exhibiting the images at major galleries in North America, Iceland and Europe. Being a professional photographer several of his images were reproduced in annual reports for major corporations in Canada (Kodak) and the USA and galleries worldwide.
David Lewis is highly regarded as a printer, well-versed in a wide range of antique printing techniques including bromoil and bromoil transfer, carbro, gelabrome, platinum, palladium and photogravure. He hosted his first workshop in 1972 and until 2020; taught several hundred photographers the process and manufactured the materials required for bromoil. He is known as the last refuge of commercial traditional bromoil printing paper and stagfoot brushes and the author of ‘The Art of Bromoil and Transfer’. For his many students over the decades, he has been an inspiration, keeping alive these printing traditions. For his local North Bay communities, he is a visual anthropologist documenting the silver and gold mines near Cobalt, north of Callander. Further afield in the USA, he is well known for his work on the upheavals of de-industrialisation of the Rust Belt.
Yet, despite his reach and influence (and the many galleries that carry his work) there has been little written about him.
David Lewis was born in 1946 in Toronto, Ontario. He tells me that his childhood was not a happy one with an absent father and the need to move from house to house. Being left-handed and not knowing at that time during the 1940’s and 1950’s that he was dyslexic, meant that he was not able to perform well at school. To be sure, the difficulties he had expressing himself linguistically and the absence of a stable ‘home’ were formative in his development as a photographer. The former imbued in him a keen visual sense; the latter, an interest in location and history.
His early influences included Leonard Misonne, Robert Demachy, C. Puyo, Margaret Bourke White and Josef Koudelka. But it was the documentary work of Lewis Hine, Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, the ‘father’ of documentary photography in the modern idiom, that perhaps were just as telling to his career as a professional photographer. At this time in the 1960’s he was interested by the Photo Secessionists (1902-1910) and the Farm Security Administration (1937-1946), an interesting combination of influences.
Lewis became involved in Bromoil when in his 20’s. He was fortunate to meet and learn from Mrs Georgia Procter-Gregg FRPS in England, Mr Trevor Jones in Wales, and Mr Ralph Davis in New York among others. It is to Georgia, however, that David ascribes most of his early technical learning. It was from Georgia that David learnt and preserved the art of Gelabrome. David was fortunate to inherit finished works, materials, and brushes from older artists wishing to preserve their art. He has a copy of every known book and magazine about bromoil and bromoil prints from several well-known bromoil artists.
Visual Anthropologist and Historian
An excerpt from his artist statement says:
“For much of my 50 plus year career I have been fascinated by the de-industrialization that has been occurring throughout North America. Documenting the loss of rural farming communities such as Keppel Township in the early 1970’s, many long abandoned industrial sites, closures of our forestry and mining industry (coal, gold and silver mines), to closure of current resource companies. This four decade long journey has resulted in the preserving of an important part of our culture for future generations to reflect on. I believe the impressionistic interpretation and timeless quality of the images I have produce during my career, reflect on the humility of our society”.
His visual anthropological work through the expressive medium of bromoil has been widely publicised, culminating in a photo-essay ‘The Corporate Wasteland’. One review 3 said, “The result confuses. The dense tones created by the bromoil process and infrared film hark back to an archaic age of unalienated photographer-artists rather than some new way of coming to terms with deindustrialization”.
But this clearly misses the point. It is this interesting combination of a documentary eye and an impressionistic style, eschewing the ‘typical Bromoil’, that opens us up to a fresh way of seeing the abandoned. Like Walker Evans, Lewis is not a documentary photographer in the traditional mould. His aesthetic sense reveals a yearning for lost things. The drama of the picture is redolent in existential themes. The one-off idiosyncratic nature of a bromoil print adds a mood that seems well suited to capturing the consequences of time.
I would like to thank David Lewis for his corrections to this article and for giving me permission to reproduce his pictures.
On a personal note, I would just like to say that David is most generous with his time, having helped me understand some mistakes that I have been making in my quest to learn Bromoil Printing.
It is a real credit to David that he has done so much to keep the art of Bromoil, (and other techniques) going.
David Lewis’s Website is at : https://www.bromoil.com/
David Lewis has written two books:
The Art of Bromoil & Transfer – This 125 page hardcover book is a definitive technical manual of the bromoil and transfer process to be published in more than 30 years. Every stage of the process is covered, including techniques taught to David by the old masters. The book contains 28 plates, including 9 historical reproductions from his collection of old master’s work as well as 6 technical illustrations. The book is on sale from his website.
The Passion Pit – A Tribute to the Drive-In Four years and 80,000 road miles have culminated in a rare photographic survey of a North American phenomenon, the drive-in movie theatre. Photographer, David Lewis crisscrossed the continent to capture on film the few remnants of a mid-20th century icon. His dramatic black and white photographs, each with its own unique story, transport us back to a golden era of cars and movies, unlocking our own memories of giddy times and forbidden pleasures.
- For example, we might have Portrait/Digital/Soft Focus or Street/Digital-Emulation/Film Noir or Landscape/Film-Bromoil/Gothic. It would be difficult to work out the number of permutations that a three-aspect view of photography gives. The number of possibilities within each category would be open to much debate. However, the number of permutations is in the many hundreds. ↩
- Bromoil is one of the most permanent of the photographic printing processes. The silver image is replaced by lithographic ink. Bromoil was invented in 1907 by Wellbourne Piper on a suggestion from E. J. Wall, building on the earlier Rawlins Process. Two years later the bromoil transfer process was invented by Fred Judge and popularized by Robert Demachy – source: David Lewis’s website. ↩
- The Public Historian Vol. 30, No. 4 (Fall 2008), pp. 150-152 (3 pages) published by: University of California Press on behalf of the National Council on Public History ↩