For the 2012/2013 DCC club year I made the decision to only submit traditional darkroom prints for the Advanced Monochrome division. I did this, not because I wanted to prove that the “old” way is better, but instead to see if my interest and dedication to “vintage” methods had any merit at all. I really don’t feel that any one method is any better than any other. I jokingly tell people all the time that I can take a bad photo with ANY camera. But, I did want to see how well my darkroom prints would do against others utilizing the latest in digital technology. What I learned is that it really doesn’t matter. A well-done and compelling photo will do well regardless of how it was made.
In any case, I did submit a print made in a darkroom 9 out of 10 months this past year. Exactly zero of these won me a first place award. For the tenth and final month I did submit a digitally printed monochromatic image and am pleased and honored that it earned me my first and only 1st place award in either monochrome or color prints since I’ve been a member of the club.
There is, however, a vintage connection with this image. Earlier this year Erin Curry and I had the fortunate opportunity to work with Frank Lopez for an afternoon where he taught us how to make wet plate collodion tintypes and ambrotypes. Frank is the photography teacher at Greenhill School as well as an accomplished local photographer with a number of credits to his name. He also happens to be one of a handful of people well-versed in historical photographic processes.
During our day with Frank we learned the recipes for making the various chemical solutions, the important safety requirements for dealing with the hazardous materials, the process for preparing and sensitizing the plates and finally how to shoot and develop the final images. By the end of the day we had each made several plates and were both able to carry out the process from beginning to end on our own. Hello 1850’s photography!
One plate in particular that I made was a recreation of an image I made for the charity event ArtCon 7 that took place last fall. That image was constructed from 40-50 individual polaroid shots that were hand-torn and assembled back together like a jigsaw puzzle to form a final 12-inch x 12-inch one-of-a-kind piece that was then auctioned off. I really enjoyed that process and was a little sad to see the final result go. Recreating it as a quarter-plate ambrotype was a nice way to make a new copy for myself.
The person in the picture is Erin, and she’s wearing a T-Shirt from the Tate Modern Art Museum in London. It reads “Tourist” and has a cartoonish image of a camera on it. One thing I love to incorporate into my images is the act of photography itself. I enjoy the self-referential, feedback loop, picture in a picture of a picture notion of it all. The pose, with the camera representing Erin’s eyes, is an homage to the picture of Dennis Stock holding a camera to his face as captured by Andreas Feininger for Life Magazine in 1951.
The plate came out well (after a few “test” shots), and I thought it might make a good entry for our final monthly competition. The plate is small and made of glass so I wasn’t able to submit the original “print” for the competition. So I scanned it into the computer and printed it out on an Epson 3880. This particular wet-plate process produces direct positives onto opaque black plates. Images appear backwards as a result. Back in the Civil War days they had fewer T-shirts with words on them, so it was less obvious. I chose not to flip the image once it was in the computer in order to preserve the likeness to the original. I also found the composition to be a little “off” when flipped. The tone of the digital print is a bit of a yellowish-green cream color and is very close to the “color” of the actual plate. The wet-plate process is a monochromatic one, but due to the nature of the chemicals used and in particular the varnish applied to the plate as a protective layer it ended up with a cream toning to it.
Some might suggest that “Film is Dead” and I don’t think that’s 100% true. Certainly it’s becoming an “alternative process” and that’s ok with me. These older processes have a way of sticking around in some capacity or another and - even in the case of the oldest of photographic methods – can still prove to be relevant today.