The Japanese word gaman, which describes the state of enduring insufferable pain with dignity, tends to seep into the vernacular during times of strife. The Japanese-American internment camps during World War II, for example, or the 2011 Tohoku earthquake. Or the atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, which occurred just 45 miles from photographer Michael Koerner’s mother’s childhood home in Sasebo, Japan. The bomb killed an estimated 60,000 to 80,000 people and gave rise to genetic mutations that would devastate the posterity of entire families, including Koerner’s. Koerner’s gaman manifests through the "chemigrams” he creates—tintypes that are made from two plates sandwiched together and doused with a syrupy collodion sauce.
My DNA, Koerner’s latest series, recently on display at Chicago's Catherine Edelman Gallery, conveys his genetic predisposition through the chemically induced blooms, each spreading across the 6 by 8-inch frame like crystallized cells from a biopsy. It’s a controlled chaos: Koerner can predict the general feel of an image, but the exact outcome is always a surprise.
That uncertainty is nothing new to Koerner. Genome sequencing conducted by a lab in Spain revealed he has a high propensity for cancers in his kidney, brain, and thyroid, and he currently is monitoring a tumor in his kidney, which Koerner says threatens to metastasize at any minute. His four younger brothers have all passed away: The first a few days after birth; the second late in his mother's third trimester of pregnancy; and the youngest at age 32, felled by pneumonia after two bouts with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Koerner’s mother walked on the Nagasaki's irradiated ground for more than a decade—which he believes indubitably interfered with her reproductive cells—before succumbing to Cushing’s disease. Koerner’s father worked on Operation Castle, a series of thermonuclear tests operated by the US Navy during the Korean war, and later died of prostate cancer. Koerner says he spent a total of 800 days in the hospital caring for his parents.
Koerner realized his objective for My DNA eight years ago: uncoincidentally, he says, around the time when his mother died. “Most art comes out of tragedy,” gallery owner Catherine Edelman says. “Most art has a purpose, a meaning, and a politic.” Koerner’s approach, she says, is a unique choice of medium in relation to the subject—most tintypes are portraits or landscapes, not chemical reactions.
Given Koerner’s field, it makes sense: He’s an organic chemistry professor with professional experience working at chem startups. Like any scientist, he knew producing the kind of image he wanted would require some experimentation. Koerner first tried growing mold on a petri dish to create his desired fractal pattern using expired photographic paper from the 1930s and 1940s, around the time his mother was living in Japan. He found the process too painstaking and instead began to consider a chemical solution more in line with his day job. “I worked doggedly, every day, every night, for months at a time and just not getting what I want,” Koerner recalls. “Then I finally realized, oh, I’m not using my scientific principles. It’s a matter of kinetics: This reaction has to go faster. So, I had to use a more concentrated version.”
Koerner remembers the moment he got the process to work, the catharsis of those silver growths finally appearing after six years of failure—a trial he describes as “more aggravating than getting my PhD.” While he had won the first battle, he faced another: His audience. People questioned whether his work, which requires no camera or obvious light source, could actually be considered photography. Koerner argues that My DNA offers an alternative chemical version of photography that’s been practiced long before him. (The father of chemigrams, Pierre Cordier, made his first print in 1956 using nail polish and light-sensitive paper.) Koerner also produces his tintypes in a darkroom, steeping himself in photographic tradition by deploying its technique.
The work is a confluence of seemingly disparate forces: reason and emotion, rigor and intuition. His mornings begin with poring over scientific literature from the 1800s and end with late nights “slinging stuff onto plates.” The intention isn’t to create something pretty but rather to tell a story that’s up to now suffocated under the weight of gaman and the silence it encourages. In one image, Three Sisters, Koerner uses fractal patterns to represent the faces of his mother and her two sisters—but he felt torn about giving the world their story. "I remember looking [at the image] in the darkroom," he says, "and saying, ‘Do you guys want me to [share] this? I’m asking permission.’" It sold during the exhibit's first day.
Koerner says he struggles with survivor’s guilt, figuring out how to make sense of a fate he has been spared. In some ways, My DNA is an obvious answer: It grants Koerner agency over his inherited illness, an optimization of the inevitable. As his familial legacy tapers, his work endures.