'Crystal with Knife', from Working the Land series by Craig J Barber.

Alternative Processes: a reaction to digital?

Lottie Davies seeks to uncover the lure of wet plate collodion and its increasing popularity.

There is a ubiquity to colour snapshots these days – colour is normal. This is not.’ Craig Barber, in conversation.

As a recording technology, wet plate collodion doesn’t really cut it these days. Despite being the most highly resolved photographic recording process ever invented (including digital, I’ll have you know), it’s cumbersome and unpredictable and, at most, you can make an image once every twenty minutes. Much of the attraction of course is the way it looks. But then, what of the many tintype, calotype and daguerrotype apps for smartphones? Do they not create the same thing? I wanted to find out why photographers currently using alternative processes were making life hard for themselves, so I sought out a few to talk to.

Self Portrait tintype. James Millar
Self Portrait tintype by James Millar.

‘Hands-on’ was a phrase I heard a great deal. Tony Richards said, “I spend way too much time staring at pixels. So any process that involves a different level of dexterity, smells and sensations is a winner for me.” For James Millar, one of the things that attracts is that “the plate exists in the physical realm“. He is in the process of creating a ‘tintype chronicle’ of London performance artists for an exhibition later this year and watching him create plates in a London garden recently, I could sense his joy in the tactile, the ‘actuality’ of the images.

'Mother'. Flora MeszarosMother by Flora Meszaros.

The way Flora Meszaros described her approach reminded me of the slow food movement, the desire to slow things down to appreciate them. “The process forces you to think things over, to work on one image for two hours or even two weeks.” I asked her why she thought alternative processes were becoming more popular. “Sometimes it’s just a question of aesthetics. Some people do it because they want to create something unique, that is completely off the digital grid… Some just like the nostalgia of it.”

The thing is, a tintype app can never make a tintype. It can alter an image to have the look of one, but unless the phone is going to spit out a 10″x8″ piece of metal, all it’s doing is creating the pretence of a tintype. As Craig Barber, a photographer currently working with tintype in the US observed, “it’s like buying a knock-off Louis Vuitton handbag; it looks very similar but it just isn’t the same thing.”.

Nancy and Toulouse, from 'Working the Land', Craig J Barber
Nancy and Toulouse, from Working the Land series by Craig J Barber.

Barber is working on a project with his local farming community called ‘Working The Land‘, which he thinks will take a total of five to six years to complete. “I like to immerse myself, to make a long-term commitment. I choose to work with tintypes for this work because they resonate with an earlier era when we were more agrarian.”

The element of struggle, of manual labour, creates an affinity between the wet plate photographer and the working man. “They’re people who get dirty for a living; that’s not always celebrated. I want to honour these people. I want to say ‘hey, you are important.” It became very apparent to me that alternative processes demand engagement with the subject in a different way to any other. There is literally no way to make the images without full participation of both the photographer and the photographed. “It’s a giving process – I give to them, they give to me and we’re all excited together. It’s a wonderful collaboration – no other process does that.”

Similarly, for Carl Radford, one of the earliest modern exponents of wet plate in the UK, it is this relationship which struck him most during his work at Kirkstone Quarry in 2011. ‘It’s a genuine collaboration, not a stolen image.” Radford calls alternative processes “the antithesis of the disposable“, which may seem obvious, but I don’t think he’s wrong.

'Steve "Tag" Saint' from The Lifeboat Station Project. Jack LoweSteve “Tag” Saint from The Lifeboat Station Project series by Jack Lowe.

This feeling of mutual respect is a central factor in Jack Lowe’s ‘The Lifeboat Station Project‘, a mission to photograph every one of the 237 RNLI lifeboat stations in Britain and Ireland. Lowe said, “I chose wet plate for this work because I don’t want to be a photographic locust. The process demands that everyone participates. You have to make the commitment, from a position of respect and understanding.” In all my conversations about old techniques, what came up regularly was a desire for authenticity, one which is somehow lent by the process itself, but also through the time required by it.

Interestingly, Lowe has come to view his ambrotypes almost as sculptures; the three-dimensionality, the fact that they are absolutely unique, has changed his understanding of what they are and what they mean. He thinks of them as records of time; six seconds of someone’s existence, the breaths and heartbeats which occurred during the exposure. It’s not about the process for him, but about the experiences which the process enables.

'Last Light, Dun Briste' from 'The Point of Deliverance', Alex BoydLast Light, Dun Briste from The Point of Deliverance series by Alex Boyd.

Of all the artists I spoke to, Alex Boyd was the only one who doesn’t photograph people but concentrates on landscape. Time and physical effort, lots of it, is what he employs in his work. He hauls heavy, awkward equipment up mountainsides, almost, it seems, in tribute to the momentous nature of the places, his subjects. For him, the exertion focuses the endeavour and the process informs the image. His approach is about “trying to communicate a visual, emotional and physical response to the landscape.” And as he has become more able to control the process, he has felt able to exert artistic intention into the work; “I realised I could go past the making of the images and use the process as an expressive medium.” The key seems to be that the experience is integral to the final piece for Boyd and to so many contemporary alternative process practitioners.

Using Victorian processes is definitely a personal thing, and their current popularity may indeed be in reaction to digital, but that’s only the beginning. Jack Lowe says he’s a changed man since he started his new project and Tony Richards sums it up rather well with a simple statement; ‘Wet plate keeps me sane.