Binh Danh's Chlorophyll Art
NPR's Ketzel Levine profiles Vietnamese-born photographer Binh Danh, who uses the power of the sun to print pictures on leaves. At the age of 25, Binh Danh is one of the youngest artists to be invited into Stanford University's master of fine arts program.
Photo Gallery: Artist Binh Danh
The chlorophyll print, "Lost and Found."
Binh Danh's canvas: a nasturtium leaf.
The artist develops his leaf prints on the roof.
The Danh family.
June 23, 2003 -- When Binh Danh prints pictures on leaves, something inexplicable happens. His small, green canvases expand beyond measure with both the seen and the unseen. The serenity of the Buddha on a circular nasturtium suggests a primordial, benevolent world; armed soldiers in camouflage, crouched in calla lily foliage, appear to be both predator and prey; and a young Vietnamese boy, held in the fingered palm of a philodendron, aches with human vulnerability.
As a photographer, Binh Danh has found that chlorophyll prints capture his belief in the interconnectedness of the natural world. One of his pictures features soldiers in the jungle; their image is printed on a very long, tropical leaf. "In a way," he says, "the soldiers in their camouflage uniforms are becoming one with the landscape." He also makes poignant use of leaves that are marred by insects or scarred by weather, which he finds add a sense of injury and decay to his prints.
From start to finish, his technique is this: Binh Danh begins by picking a leaf -- often from his mother's garden. To keep it from drying out, he fills a small bag with water and ties it to its stem. He places the leaf on a felt-covered board, and puts a negative directly on the leaf (he has an archive of images he's collected from magazines and purchased online). He places glass over the leaf, clips the glass and board together, and puts the assemblage on the patio roof.
Binh Danh will check the image periodically to see how it's "baking." The process can last days or weeks. Four out of five times, he's dissatisfied, and throws the leaf away. But when the chlorophyll print is right -- whether precisely rendered or eerily vague -- he takes the leaf, fixes it in resin, and frames it.
Though the images he chooses are often haunting and heart-wrenching, the Vietnamese-born Danh is not angry about the difficult years his family experienced during the Vietnam War. The 25-year-old Stanford University graduate student says it's time to lay aside blame. "I try to look at all positions," he says, "and learn from history. So we don't repeat it again."
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