Monday, June 27, 2011

Adventures in Wet Plate

Double Vision
(my first wet plate tintype)
I've been learning and working with so-called alternative photographic processes for some time now. I like the idea of using processes that were developed in the first 25-40 years of photographic history, I like the physicality of the resulting prints and I like the fact that by doing these processes I can protect my photographic vision from the potential future loss of currently available analog materials. Whenever a workshop becomes available locally for a new (to me) process, I jump at the chance to take it. So I was very excited when Lúz Gallery announced back in December that Joni Sternbach would be coming to Victoria this June to give a workshop on wet plate collodion. And a good thing I did, since the workshop filled up within a few days.

Tintypes and Ambrotypes from Day 1

It's the day after the workshop, and I confess I'm totally in love with wet plate. And with Joni and her assistant Lisa. I've taken quite a few workshops over the years, and this one was without doubt the best I've ever taken. And in terms of the group of students, definitely in the top 3 of the various groups I've been part of. High level of interest, energy and excitement combined with a great cooperative spirit (important when sharing 2 cameras and 1 darkroom between 9 students), with a wonderful mix of ages and experience.

Elissa Marie self-portrait

Candace - self-portrait

Ottilie - self-portrait (zombie)
tied for the "Sally Mann" award

Lindsay - self-portrait

I think the experience we all had with the wet plate process is perfectly summed up by Lindsay, who posted a photo of her first wet plate result on facebook with the comment "I think I just died and went to heaven like 50 times over and over again. self portrait ambrotype!" I felt pretty much exactly the same.

Susie - self-portrait tintype

Richard - self-portrait tintype

Every student had successful plates, which given the complexities of the process, the chaotic nature of a workshop environment and the two day duration is quite an achievement. All possible because the course was well organized, and both Joni and Lisa are patient, generous teachers who shared their amazing knowledge of wet plate through clear instruction and with a good dose of humour.

Joni exposing the first plate of the workshop

David, Elissa and Ottilie look at the first plate with Joni

The first plate - David, self-portrait

In her book "Mindful Learning", Ellen Langer, a Harvard professor makes the case that students learn more effectively when they are presented with information in shades of grey rather than a cut and dried black or white approach. In any other wet plate workshop of such short duration, students would stick to making plates on trophy tin which doesn't need to be prepared in advance and is slightly easier to work with. And there is a strong argument to be made for such a "KISS" approach to teaching a process like wet plate.

Joni repairing a tear on a plate

Joni and Ottilie discussing equipment options

What was great about our workshop was the built-in "shades of grey": we were exposed to the ideas and working methods of two instructors; we worked in groups of three and could see how each student coped differently with the plate pouring and processing steps; we were encouraged to work with both tin and glass plates to get a range of experiences. I think these design details of the workshop really accentuated the learning process along the lines that Langer describes in her book. And by working not just with tin, we were confronted with problems with emulsion pealing, and making decisions about exposure and developer dilution in deciding between making a positive or negative ambrotype that lead to discussions of what went wrong and how to possibly solve it.

My second tintype - channeling René Descartes

One unexpected fun thing for me was discovering that I like taking portraits. I'm still not crazy about my own self-portraits, although I do like the way wet plate self-portraits look. Gave me new understanding of Chuck Close's longtime fascination with his own self-portrait. We worked in teams of three, so I had a chance to compose and focus selfportraits for both David and Shannon. There's something very breathtaking when you see the image on the ground glass come up with the sharp focus on the subject's eyes. 

I have one additional plate, a clear glass ambrotype exposed to be used as a negative. I'm going to make some prints with it, and will post those results later.

Finally, I have to laugh at myself and a case of caveat emptor. During the meet and greet the first night, when we were each introducing ourselves and saying a little bit about why we were interested in wet plate, I specifically mentioned liking the accidental defects that can happen. As it turned out, I ended up with everything I had asked for (and more). My first plate ended up being double exposed because we were testing a camera and the shutter malfunctioned. I do like the double image. My second plate had quite a journey - it fell off the dipper when I was removing it from the silver tank, and Lisa had to work some magic to get it out, but the plate suffered a scratch (that ended up right across the top of my head in the end). After development (a perfect exposure), the plate had a few oyster shells. Joni was helping me remove them with a small piece of cotton ball, but a bit more emulsion was lifted off than should have happened (around the forehead/eye area). So I have a great plate with "additions" by Lisa and Joni - a keepsake for sure. And my ambrotype negative had a bit of peeling, so I have my own version of a "zombie" plate.

To sum up: the workshop was massive fun, I definitely will set up to do wet plate on my own, and if you ever have a chance to take a workshop with Joni Sternbach - do it!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Savage and Impenetrable


(click on an image to view larger)

The surrealist artist Max Ernst described the interlacing terror and enchantment evoked by the emblem of the forest as "savage and impenetrable, black and russet, extravagant, secular, swarming, diametrical, negligent, ferocious, fervent, and likable, without yesterday or tomorrow..." 
I saw this quote when visiting the exhibition "Surrealist Revolution" last week at the Vancouver Art Gallery. This exhibition really opened my mind to the incredibly ambitious reach of the Surrealists in terms of the topics of their investigations and the many approaches and media they used in fully exploring those topics. The most well known images by Dali and Magritte in many ways do a disservice to one's understanding of the Surrealists; this exhibition does much to correct that (and as my friend Jan said - it rehabilitated Dali for her). A number of Surrealists made photographic images;  I was particularly taken by a series entitled "La subversion des images" by Paul Nouge. I left the exhibit with a desire to learn much more about the Surrealists - I feel that I may find considerable inspiration in their very broad, comprehensive approaches to art. 

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Photographs are Objects

(click on an image to view larger)

I've been thinking recently about the gulf that seems to exist between viewing images online, on screen and what I consider to be the true test of an image's strength - as a physical object. I recently was reminded of how big that gulf can be when I first looked at the work of Lis Bailley's work New Horizons on the Luz Gallery website. The images when viewed on the web didn't seem to have much substance to me, so I was very pleasantly surprised at how powerful those same images were when I encountered them as prints on the gallery walls. They had a richness and pull that was completely absent when viewed on screen. 

A couple of years ago, I made a decision to stop scanning black and white film after I developed it, and return to traditional printing of the images. I was craving the opportunity to work in the darkroom, and to hold finished prints in my hands. Over time, I find I'm evolving an odd hybrid workflow for black and white - shoot film, process and print in darkroom, scan print and then post on blog/flickr etc. There's a certain rhythm that's developed in this workflow that really resonates with me. At the moment, I'm laying out a zine of Holga images I took on a trip to San Francisco back in October. All of the images were first printed in the darkroom, then scanned and now printed out with a laser printer. I'm in the process of culling and sequencing the images, and will produce a low-tech zine with the laser printer. It will be the first publication of my newest venture Studio Centralé Press, which marries my long-standing love of books with my conviction that my photographic work (and that of others) is best viewed as physical objects.

The website is currently under construction, but if you are interested in learning more, I am starting a blog for Studio Centralé which I will update with news of progress and publications.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Hamlet's Blackberry

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Today I took a restorative walk in a local forest - it was warm today for the second time this summer, and I felt embraced by the coolness of walking in the trees. 

I just finished reading the book Hamlet's Blackberry by William Powers, which is an in depth look at how to find balance in this ever-more-connected world. I had previously read The Dumbest Generation by Mark Bauerlein and The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. These two books are extremely thoughtful investigations into the negative impact that the internet has had on our lives, but say very little about the benefits and how to maintain them while minimizing the negative. I think both the Bauerlein and Carr books have their place - when people are unaware of the dangers of their behaviour, it is necessary to first get their attention by shouting. And I think the Bauerlein and Carr books very effectively get people's attention on this issue.

Where Powers' book differs is in his acknowledgement that we have undoubtedly benefited from the extended connectedness that the internet has brought into our lives, while at the same time highlighting that we often feel a loss of control, and unknowingly are giving up important habits and ways of relating to one another in the process. He uses historical references from Plato, Seneca, Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Franklin, Thoreau and finally McLuhan to illustrate the challenges that each of these individual's respective times faced when a new technology was introduced that increased the busyness and information overload of lives, and the measures they took to counterbalance that impact. There's a great deal of food for thought in this book, and Powers ends with some general suggestions for finding a personal prescription for balance in this ever-more connected world. He ends by giving a specific example used by his own family to place the usefulness of the internet within the context of living in a way that allows for deep thinking and doing meaningful things together.
Reading the book caused me to reflect on my strongest memories of happy times. They revolve around periods of time such as when I was in graduate school, immersed in research and writing my thesis. Without computers and the internet, literature research was done by hand, and I summarized the key points of each paper I read on 3x5 index cards. When I came to write my thesis, all the information I needed was organized on the cards and I wrote the thesis out by hand in 3 week (I recently found the original handwritten manuscript). A secretary typed it all out on an IBM selectric typewriter. It sounds cumbersome in today's world of on-line searching and downloading of citations and pdf files into Endnote; yet I know I had a better command of the information back then that was facilitated by the writing out of the information on those cards and the physicality of the organized cards was something that I could visualize while looking for relevant information. When I tell today's graduate students about writing my thesis in 3 weeks, they are stunned - it typically takes them upwards of 12 months to write a thesis these days (my own writing skills have deteriorated through computer use as well).

I also have many fond memories of our postdoctoral experience living in Germany in the late 1970s - we kept in touch with family by letters; stores were open only a half day on Saturdays and not at all on Sundays, so we spent many weekends walking in town, visiting nearby places, having coffee and pastries, getting together with friends and sitting on the sofa together reading. And my favourite recent Christmas memories are from years when it was just the two of us, and we would spend the days with a cozy fire reading books we'd given each other as gifts, going for walks, making good meals.

The great thing is that my ability to do these things is still with me (really, with all of us). Powers suggests that bringing these things back into life is best done in a positive way - doing it because it feels right and will be beneficial, rather than doing it for negative reasons. And in doing so, it also leaves room for retaining the benefits of the internet in our lives while clearing out the mindless habits that internet use often invokes.