SALT LAKE CITY — Hanging in the Rio Gallery is a black-and-white photo, supposedly from the 1870s, showing a half-underwater shot of an Australian whale. Just glancing at it, it's hard to remember that underwater photography wasn't possible 160 years ago. And then there's the location. Is that… the Great Salt Lake? Plus, two photographs framed next to it show custom-built train cars that apparently shipped the whales from San Francisco to Utah.
Where did this crazy story start? And are these pictures real?
For the first question, let's turn to an article from the June 24, 1890 edition of the Daily Enquirer, a now-defunct Provo newspaper, which reported on the 15-year anniversary of two Australian whales being transported from the Pacific coast to Utah and deposited in the Great Salt Lake.
The article describes how, in 1875, a British scientist named James Wickham hypothesized that whales could live in the salt water of the Great Salt Lake and undertook the responsibility of bearing the project out. According to the article, these whales were each 35 feet long and were shipped to Utah via custom rail cars built to hold them as well as 50 tanks of sea water.
So, was it true?
Sadly, no. But it does lead us to the second question. Because this story was exactly the kind of whimsical, historical joke the photographs' creators, contemporary artists Christine Baczek and David Hyams, were looking for.
"(Hyams) and I, for a long time, have had this idea of trying to bring forgotten history back into the minds of the public," Baczek told the Deseret News. "We're always looking for ways to reference historical photographic processes in a way that's not only about technique but (that's) also about telling the story."
Historical photography requires meticulous, time-consuming work. From the beginning of photography, older methods have been quickly discarded as easier, faster techniques become available. But Baczek and Hyams are artists, not commercial photographers.
"What we're finding is that all that alternative or historical photographic printing is another way to express something," Baczek said. She compares using historical photography to a painter's choice between oil paint or acrylic.
"It's just another tool we have to tell a story," she said.
Baczek and Hyams opened a historical photography studio called Luminaria in Salt Lake City in February 2018. Together, they offer custom portraits and printing as well as workshops where participants can learn how to combine modern technology with historical photographic techniques.
"Dave's expertise is in bridging the digital with the analog," Baczek said. "He can take any digital file and output a digital negative from an inkjet printer … and that way, you don't need a large-format camera, you don't need to work with film. You have the beauty of doing image capture with a digital camera, which is really fun and a lot easier than dealing with negatives, and then you can output this really beautiful, handmade print."
Besides an interest in making artistic tools available, according to their artist statements, Baczek and Hyams use historical photography to examine how events get documented in the historical record and photography's relationship with truth.
"For me, the value of looking back on historical happenings … is (that) you can just learn so much about how ideas persist, and how and what is left in historical knowledge and what is omitted from the history books," Baczek said.
For many people, photographs of an event equal the truth of a historical event. But what about things that didn't get photographed, or things that were only photographed from a certain point of view? Baczek and Hyams are interested in how historical photography can help remake a narrative by showing influential events and people who've been left out in the past.
"You can just learn so much about other people's priorities as individuals and as a unit based on what survives in history," Baczek said.
'Whale of a Tale'
Though a lot of their work focuses on these serious issues, Baczek and Hyams have a playful side. That's why they chose to focus on a ludicrous story about whales in the Great Salt Lake in their most recent piece, "Whale of a Tale."
"From 'Whale of a Tale,' I really hope that people see that art can be fun. … You can get so caught up in having everything be really serious and really profound," Baczek explained. "'Whale of a Tale' was a chance for us to do something a little bit more on the fun side that also had a strong message."
"Whale of a Tale" consists of three full-plate tintypes, one quarter-plate tintype and a few contemporary objects. (Tintype is a type of historical photography in which images are printed through a chemical reaction onto a thin metal plate.) The tintypes imagine what 19th-century photographers would have captured if whales were actually shipped from San Francisco to Salt Lake. The contemporary objects include some materials from the Great Salt Lake Whale Watch Society, a fictional society Baczek and Hyams created whose goal is to preserve the whale habitat in Utah.
Baczek and Hyams aren't concerned that people might encounter the exhibit and think these events really happened. In fact, that's the point of this work.
"We wanted people to walk away wondering, 'Is this real?'" Baczek said. "We wanted it to be realistic enough and compelling enough that they would believe it and have to dig a little further."
"Whale of a Tale" is a playful story, but Baczek and Hyams are aware of current problems that make this exhibit timely.
"We're inundated with this idea of fake news all the time," Baczek said. "With visual literacy and digital literacy not being very strong in a lot of populations in the country, we also wanted to deal with that idea and make people think about what makes you believe something."
If you go …
What: "Whale of a Tale" at the "Transcontinental: People, Places, Impact" exhibit
When: Through June 14, Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.–5 p.m. Closed Saturday and Sunday
Where: The Rio Gallery, 300 S. Rio Grande St.
How much: Free