I enter the party to see dozens of people huddled in a semicircle, silently staring in one direction. What did I get myself into: an artists’ séance, a meditation session, or maybe a covert operation for the Moon sect?
Peeking around to get a better look, the partygoers were simply soaking in the power of a still image. Coinciding with Photo LA, Patrick Alt hosts an annual photo fest of his own.
Professionals and students alike show photographic work in front of a rapt audience passionate for straight photography and historical (also referred to as alternative) processes like wet plate collodium, cyanotype, platinum, and silver gelatin. It’s the anti-digital photography fest.
Digital photography has evened the playing field and made everyone a photographer, able to produce fast, cheap, fleeting images with a click of a cell phone. But a return to straight photography and hand-printed images is emerging.
Like the farm-to-table movement, society is craving human connection and pride of craftsmanship once again.
Even Kodak senses the trend with their recent announcement of discontinuing digital cameras to focus on film.
During this party dedicated to foundational photography, I met four artists of the alternative process who are pursuing the path less taken to encourage the viewer to slow down, absorb, connect and dream again. »
Luther, born on a farm, began building things by hand at an early age from antique tools. Since 1983, he’s been studying 19th century photography books and perfecting the wet plate collodium technique, one of the oldest forms of reproducing an image.
Wet plate collodium is the antithesis of digital photography. It’s slow, cumbersome, dangerous, irreproducible and beautiful. It produces a ghostly image transferred onto glass.
Each image takes roughly thirty minutes to create and must be processed on the spot. To handle the rigors of this, Luther has two portable darkrooms to accommodate the urgency: a shuttle bus and a Ford truck, but he has also been know to use tents and wheelbarrows.
Luther explains why he persists on the laborious, twenty-step process to make one image, “It’s a one on one experience. Every step I make by hand, thus it’s poetic, certainly sensual. It’s a dirty process, which makes me imminently connected to each image I create.”
Because there are no negatives and no film, the size of the image is defined by the camera. Throwing off traditional 8×10 camera confines, Luther, with help from Patrick Alt, built the world’s largest camera: a 25’’ x 30’’ glass plate camera they affectionately named ‘the behemoth.’
Captivated with Luther’s sense for the ethereal and his Proustian approach to photography, First Lady Michelle Obama is one of his most renowned collectors. Two of his pieces currently hang in the White House.
A retrospective show of Luther’s work will be at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, November 2012. www.luthergerlach.com
“Just because something is shot or printed with a historical process does not make it good art,” says Lindsey Ross, recent MDA Photography graduate of Brooks Institute.
In the “American War” series, she employed the cyanotype process to fully immerse herself in the experience of producing images in a post-War America with limited resources. Cyanotype, invented in 1842, utilizes cyanide and UV light to reveal a cyan blue photographic print.
Out of an efficiency studio the size of a Beverly Hills’ closet, a communal bathroom as her nighttime darkroom and the hood of her VW convertible, Lindsey created a cyanotype series of harrowing, weighty images questioning our obsession with war(s).
Her work is an amalgamation of modern meets vintage, inspired by the works of Marcia Resnick and Francesca Woodman. She further explains, “I work in the lineage of conceptual photographers who approach ideas about aestheticization of suffering and war. Even if you broaden the scope to conceptual photographers and those who employ historical processes, you don’t see much crossover. Sally Mann and Chris McCaw are both exceptions to this.”
Lindsey reiterated the current need for connectivity in a modern world. “I think people are trying to reconnect to the physical world in so many ways and alternative processes are one of them.”
Her “American War” series in featured at Acero Gallery, Santa Barbara, June 7th, 2012. www.lindseyrossphoto.com
Serendipity and beauty motivates Patrick’s passion for platinum printing. Like wet plate collodium, it cannot be enlarged but it can be reproduced, and was a revolutionary evolution in the photographic process.
Speaking softly like an enlightened sage, Patrick lights up as he explains this dedication to a near two hundred year old photographic process, “Platinum imbues the image with layers of complexity and 3-D like tonal depth that forces the viewer to engage.”
As a master of perfection, it’s no surprise he is known by his contemporaries as one of the world’s best platinum printers. Patrick has been at it for over thirty years, all self-taught, trial by error.
Beyond platinum printing, women and Americana landscapes are Patrick’s source of splendor. He photographs women in an attempt to understand them (he says he still hasn’t after 40 years of shooting them), and with landscapes he seeks the ‘oddly, wonderful human imprints’ upon the land.
Now he’s creating photographic sculptures of found objects, natural elements and hand-built frames to create altar-type tributes for his “Goddess” series of women dressed in tribal headdresses and ethnic accoutrements.
With the humble sincerity of a saint, he declares, “When I look at my prints, it amazes me that I can create such beauty.”
He has no tolerance for anything less than excellence, no matter the time and effort it takes. He says with platinum printing and large format cameras, it takes ‘God-like patience to do it.’ When a student of his proudly denounced using a large format for the ease of a digital camera, he asked, “When did laziness become a virtue?’’
His work is represented by Peter Fetterman Gallery. www.patrickalt.com
After many failed attempts to recreate the feeling of light of a Jeanloup Sieff photograph he owned, Marc Valesella simply called him up and asked for help with printing. Sieff obliged and apprenticed him over six months.
Silver gelatin printing, using silver halide to create black and white images, is the most contemporary of the alternative processes. Before digital, it was the standard method until a decade ago.
Inspired by NASA’s photos of the moon and the acutance of 1960s military spy photography, Marc has pushed the process to bestow small and medium format negatives with razor-like sharpness and luminous contrast.
Like man cannot live on bread alone, neither can Marc be satisfied with craft alone. He explains, “I am not happy just creating a beautiful print. If I allow myself to stop there, I’ve lost my edge as a fine art photographer.”
Marc explains his revelation after visiting Donald Judd’s military barracks in 1993, “Marfa is the perfect osmosis of both craft and concept. Art without craft is like a score without a musician, concept without craft is just confusion.”
As a master printer for photographers like Helmut Newton, Julius Shulman, Julian Wasser and Christopher Williams, craft is king for Valesella. Yet his quest remains to challenge traditional boundaries of photography with the unorthodox.
Marc Valesella’s “Dreams” show exhibits at Cuny NYC, Fall 2012. www.marcvalesella.com
Although historical processes will never be mainstream again, we can still go back to the future with a chosen coterie committed to creating the magic of a handmade image.
Words Lanee Neil