At the recent Adobe ideas conference in New York City, photographer Chris Rainier gave a session about a recent book project, ANCIENT MARKS: The Sacred Origins of Tattoos and Body Marking. Part of the session was about the unusual manner in which the book evolved, was produced and finally published.
The ANCIENT MARKS book and Exhibition explore the intrinsic connection between mankind’s culture and the old tradition of marking the human body dating back two thousand years, with tattoos and scarification as a form of initiation, beauty, and highly ritualized ornamentation.
That tradition continues in today’s modern Culture. The ANCIENT MARKS Project—through photography and text – communicates man’s need to adorn the sacred geography of the human body.
The book, produced in association with Media 27 followed a seven year study by Chris to research and photograph ancient as well as modern ritualized body ornamentation. Chris first encountered the practices while producing his book Where Masks Still Dance: New Guinea (currently out of print) that documents the world’s last stone age peoples.
Page 115–Plate 001 “Free Wind“, the owner of the Black Wave studio, Los Angeles, in Moorea, Tahiti for an international gathering of tattoo artists.
The Foreword of the book was written by Wade Davis, a National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence and anthropologist, botanical explorer, and best-selling author who received his Ph.D. in ethnobotany from Harvard University.
Excerpts of Foreword
If the skin of the average human body was laid flat as a map, a sheet of parchment, it would spread over twenty square feet. This fact that did not go unnoticed by the primordial artists of the world. Had Leonardo chosen the human form as his canvas he would have had a surface to work with four times the size of the Mona Lisa. Fully engaged in the unexpressed yet palpable excitement of the Renaissance, he remained focused on other possibilities of expression. But throughout history and for the vast majority of the artists of the world the body has always been the template of the spirit, the palette upon which all dreams and possibilities may be realized and expressed.
The human form, whether isolated in the forests of the Amazon, swept clean by the bitter winds of the Arctic, or soothed by sunset rains of Polynesia became through the brilliance of inspired artistry a map of culture and myth, a sacred geography of the soul, all expressed by the simplicity of forms painted, carved, incised, or etched upon the canvas of the body.
To contemplate the images in this book, whether the living faces of Polynesia, the raised flesh of Africa, or the erotic tensions of reinvention celebrated at Burning Man, the millenarian gathering that blossoms each year from the deserts of Nevada, is to remember why all peoples through all time have in the end found ways, whatever the impediments, to seek and celebrate a transformation of the spirit.
The book itself is a 12″x 12″slip-covered, hardbound volume containing 100 beautiful plates over 168 pages, including foldouts. The reproductions in the book are stunning examples of the “printer’s art” for reproducing B&W photography. Using a quad-tone (four color) ink mix which included a silver/gold mixed ink, the pages of the book are as close to silver gelatin prints as I’ve ever seen reproduced. Chris indicated that the silver/gold touch brought out the dimension of the tonality and added a true silver gelatin look as in the image below.
Mursi Woman with Lip Plate
OMO VALLEY, ETHIOPIA
The images however do not depict only primitive tribes in exotic locations. The image below is of a Yakuza mistress from Tokyo. The story Chris told of this picture – the armed guards and the seriousness of the occassion was chilling. Yet, Chris remained calm and got the shot.
Page 128 – Plate 004 “Yakuza mistress”, Tokyo, Japan
Another example is even closer to home. Chris says “This photograph was made a few miles from San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, considered the birthplace of the modern primitive movement which adheres to a form of body marking strongly influenced by tribal rites and intiations.”
Page 155 – Plate 028 “Modern primitive” tattoo and body-modification artists, Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California
All of the images in the book were shot with film and scanned. Chris used; 2 1/4 Hasselblad, Canon 35mm, a Fuji panoramic camera and a Diana, the cheap plastic lens camera popular for it’s primitive look. Film used was primarily Kodak Tri-X.
While all of the images were scanned, Chris deployed no image maniplulations other than what “could have been accomplished” in a traditional darkroom. And traditional B&W darkroom work is something he knows a great deal about. Chris worked five years as an assistant to Ansel Adams – the noted landscape photographer. Indeed, there is a feel in Chris’s work that has an “Adams-like” tonality. Yet to achieve the look, Chris and his imaging partner Mike Verbois from Media 27, labored long hours in Photoshop. Chris would make traditional B&W proof prints and go to Media 27 to work with scans that Mike had made from the original negatives. There, with Chris looking over Mike’s shoulder, they would work on the images in Photoshop CS, sometimes for 5-6 hours per image.
Prior to this project, Chris had little experience with either digital photography or Photoshop. He was a “Photoshop newbie”. However, after seeing the incredible control and power he could exert over the rendering of his images, he was hooked. He’s learned enough about Photoshop to drive him to work to master it, like he has mastered the traditional darkroom.
He particularly appreciates the ability to control the palette of tonality to achieve the feeling he is after, image by image. He’s also addicted on the ability to experiment and the boon to creativity that offers – that and Photoshop isn’t “stinky” like the chemicals of a darkroom.
Because of his photographic clients and the type of assignments he shoots, he’s had to add digital cameras to his tool set. A long time National Geographic photographer, he’s seen the adoption of digital over time. While NG still largely prefers film, other clients such as Time magazine have gone completely digital. On assignment to cover the Indonesian earthquake and tsunami, he carried both film and digital cameras.
ANCIENT MARKS is unusual in that neither the publisher nor the book are in the mainstream publishing industry. With the recent decline in the number of quality photographic book publishers, and the conservative book distribution system, Chris and Media 27 turned to alternative approaches. While the ANCIENT MARKS book is available from fine photographic book sellers world wide, they have chosen to also offer books from the ANCIENT MARKS web site that has been designed and engineered to accompany the book and to promote and sell it.
In addition to the book, Chris is preparing for a large scale traveling exhibit of prints for galleries and museums. Due to an NDA regarding the printing technology used to create the prints, Chris can not yet talk about the printing process (check back at PSN on May 10th for more info).
About Chris Rainier
Chris Rainier is considered one of the leading documentary photographers working today. His mysterious images of sacred places and indigenous peoples of the planet have been seen in the leading publications of the day including: Time, Life, National Geographic publications, Outside, Conde Nast Traveler, Equinox, The New York Times, Smithsonian, Men’s Journal, Islands, The New Yorker, German and French Geo, and the publications of the International Red Cross, The United Nations, and Amnesty International. Rainier, a Canadian citizen, is a photographer for National Geographic Society and specializes in documenting indigenous cultures for the Societies Cultures Initiative. His photographs and books have been widely exhibited and collected around the world.
From 1980 to 1985, Rainier was photographic and environmental assistant to Ansel Adams – the noted landscape photographer.
He has received numerous awards for his photography including: five Picture of the Year Awards for his continued documentation of vanishing tribes, A Communication Arts award for his last book on New Guinea, Where Masks Still Dance: New Guinea, which was published in 1996 with an exhibition that is presently touring museums both in North America and Asia. A recipient of an Alfred Eisenstadt Award in 1998 for his photography of the Sahara desert, and an International Golden Light Award in 1994 for his first book, KEEPERS OF THE SPIRIT, Chris was recently included in American Photo Magazine’s 100 most influential people working in photography today list.
Rainier has traveled to all seven continents, and has been part of a 1992 expedition to the North Pole and seven expeditions to Antarctica. During the 1990’s he worked as a war photographer for Time Magazine covering conflicts in: Sarajevo/Bosnia, Somalia, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Rwanda, and the Middle East. He is a member of the Explorers Club in New York City, and in 2002 won their prestigious Lowell Thomas Award for Adventure story telling. He is also the Director of a website connecting tribal cultures around the globe through the internet, called Cultures on the Edge at The Ethnosphere Project at The National Geographic Society. Chris is a Co-Director of the National Geographic Society Cultures program, and a contributing Editor for National Geographic Traveler.