In recent years, historic methods of photographic image-making have enjoyed an unprecedented resurgence among photographers and artists both emerging and established—the latter group including such prominent figures as Jayne Hinds Bidaut, Chuck Close, Adam Fuss and Sally Mann.
This popularity is part of a larger cultural trend toward hands-on craftwork that employs old, even outdated techniques, and has touched any number of creative fields, from fashion to food to furniture design. The appeal behind this is, at least in part, obvious: Handmade things evoke a quieter pace, a grandfather-clock sense of the passage of time that is largely absent from our digitally chronographed 21st-century lives.
However, pursuing antiquated means of photography presents significant challenges. These processes—such as daguerreotype, tintype, opalotype and wet plate collodion—involve dangerous chemicals, are resource- and labor-intensive and, due to the many variables inherent in preparing and applying light-sensitive mixtures by hand and guessing at exposure and development times, don’t yield consistent results. And the equipment and materials—the large-format cameras and the metal or glass plates on which they record their images—are hard to find and impractical for today’s commercial purposes, which generally require a large number of images, generated as quickly as possible.
“I believe there is a niche for alternative-process photography in the editorial world, but I haven’t been seeking out those clients,” says Billie Shaker (BFA 2014 Photography), one of many young photographers who is interested in older techniques. “Since graduating, I’ve looked hard for facilities that will allow me to use the chemicals needed for platinum printing and opalotypes. But there are very few places and those I’ve found are often not affordable.” Given the difficulties in trying to use these methods in a modern world, then, why do it at all?
Part of the appeal of photographs made via historic processes is their unpredictable beauty. The long exposures required of older photo methods create a wealth of detail in the finished work, while also leaving them prone to obvious imperfections, like blurs and overexposures, that can give a mysterious, romantic quality to even the most mundane subject. “Portraits created using the old processes have so much character,” says Alan Rapp (MFA 2010 Design Criticism), a senior editor of architecture and design at the Monacelli Press, a Manhattan-based publisher of books on architecture, design and the arts. “The technique really gives them depth. Maybe it comes from the way the medium can render the creases and wear in the face. There’s an uncanny difference about the work that’s obvious. The viewer is aware of the level of effort and amount of time put into its creation, in addition to the historic feeling imparted by the process.” Shaker agrees. “I use alternative processes because I love the way it slows me down,” she says. “Each stage of the process alters the image, and using more time-consuming methods allows me to play a part in every phase of its evolution.”
The steep learning curve inherent in mastering these processes (to the degree they can be mastered at all—even the most experienced photographers find that each image brings its own surprising results) means that any practitioner by necessity becomes a valuable repository of knowledge, and a living link to the past. But is the renewed interest in archaic processes bringing anything new to the conversation, or does it represent a revisiting of the early days of photography that will lead to little in the way of artistic advances?
Photographers are exploring this question from many angles. Victoria Will, who has shot tintype portraits of celebrities at the Sundance Film Festival for the past two years, takes advantage of modern adaptations to make the most of the fleeting moments she has with each star, rather than strictly adhering to entirely traditional methods. She uses a strobe, instead of relying on natural light, to shorten the exposure time, for example, and employs a darkroom team to develop the tintype plates, while she focuses only on framing and shooting the images. But the process still remains unusual enough to interest and engage her subjects, who “appreciate the opportunity to sit still and pose quietly,” she says. “I tell them I’m only going to take one photo, a big change from every other photo booth they visit. . . . The experience provides a moment of mindfulness and an awareness of time, as well as a break from the rush of photo ops and sound bites they’re expected to provide.” The subjects are often so taken with the intimacy and novelty of the experience, Will says, that they often ask to visit the darkroom to watch their portraits develop.
Joni Sternbach (BFA 1977 Photography) takes a portable approach to her wet plate photos of surfers. For her 2015 book Surf Site Tin Type (Damiani), she traveled to such popular surfing locales as Montauk and Malibu in the U.S., Byron Bay in Australia and Cornwall in England, taking with her an old Deardorff 8 x 10" field camera and portable darkroom and preparing her plates on site. She first learned the wet plate process in 1999 from expert John Coffer, a photographer who lives a 19th-century life free of modern conveniences in upstate New York. Coffer taught Sternbach to coat tin plates with a mixture of black asphaltum and mineral spirits, bake them over an open fire, coat them with collodion (a thick, sticky chemical mixture), dip them in a solution of light-sensitive silver nitrate, expose them in the back of the camera, and develop them, all in a span of about 15 minutes.
“The result is always a surprise,” Sternbach says, and the environmental factors that contribute to the final image impart a sense of place that photographs taken by more conventional, and convenient, means would be without. “There’s a certain chemical element that cannot be explained, due to factors like temperature and what the ultraviolet light is like at the time. Since UV light is invisible to humans, there’s this whole element of the image being exposed by something you can’t see or judge for yourself. [And] wind can be a general pain in the ass while working in the field. It makes pouring the collodion a challenge, because it blows the dark cloth around while you’re in the dark box, and can cause lines to form on the plate.”
One question comes up repeatedly when discussing contemporary photos made by historic processes: Is there always an overriding sense of nostalgia or wistfulness imparted by the rich monochromatic tones and visible elements of handcraft (the drippy-looking emulsion around the edges, the imperfections and variable focus)? In other words, does the content become secondary to the 19th-century look?
Charles Traub, chair of the MFA Photography, Video and Related Media program at SVA, thinks it often does. “Most of what is being done with old processes is just sort of a fetish for the process rather than trying to figure out how to use it in an original way,” he says. “But if you can do an old thing in a new way, that’s a little road to heaven. The responsibility of the artist is to lead the culture into a world of the heretofore unseen.”
The inherent look of age or time past can pose an ongoing dilemma for photographers. Artist Chuck Close made a series of daguerreotype portraits and torso studies in 2000 in collaboration with contemporary daguerreotypist Jerry Spagnoli, and admitted a bit of a struggle with this. In an interview for The New York Times, he said, “I am trying to banish the nostalgia from something old to make it about our time. I was fascinated by the clarity and detail of the daguerreotype. Nothing gets lost.”
“What I noticed with wet plate is that it doesn’t matter what you photograph,” Sternbach says. “Everything looks old. You could photograph the most modern of things, and somehow they still look ancient. There’s something about the process that automatically brings up the topic of nostalgia, but I wasn’t really interested in that. I wanted to connect the dots between the past and the present and see how either they’re balanced or imbalanced. How we reflect upon the past. How an old process with a current subject matter talks about photography or talks about life in general—those were my initial concerns.”
Archaic photo processing methods are admittedly impractical in the modern world where many other, easier options are available, and the inevitable association with nostalgic impulses and bygone times will continue to present a stumbling block for some critics and viewers. Yet these methods create images that are so palpably different, beautiful and haunting, it’s little wonder that many photographers continue to look for ways to adapt them for contemporary means.
“If work made by historic or ‘alternative’ methods invokes feelings of nostalgia, it is generally because [the work itself has] familiar imagery and limited ideas,” says Michael Mazzeo, a working artist and former New York City gallery owner. “Look to the past with an eye on the present and the future. Draw from the past, but don’t imitate it. An artwork should be coherent and unified, process included. Process used as device will produce little more than decoration. ∞