Sunday, January 6, 2013

Wet Plate Collodion artist Allan Barnes interview

On Saturday January 5th it was my pleasure to visit Allan Barnes - photographer residing in Los Angeles.   Allan has taught photography at multiple institutions and has led many private workshops.  Currently he is a part time instructor at the New York Film Academy and offers private tutorials.  His work can be found on his Tumblr and Flickr account and to find out more about his private teaching practice you could refer to his own Blog.

It just so happened that during my visit I was able to observe him as he was doing a follow-up class with two students and I got a taste of his teaching style, which was very no-nonsense and to the point.  His students were delighted and vowed to come back for more practice time at a later date (wet plate collodion is a complicated processes and is not something one can get comfortable with in one or two days). 

 Allan aiding his students in the portrait session.

Allan's student and their models.

After the daylight was gone, the backdrop was removed from the garden and his students departed we sat down for an interview:
Q.  What process do you work with?
A.  I work with wet plate collodion, which includes both tintypes and ambrotypes.  Ambrotypes are glass-based images where glass plates are soaked in silver nitrate with collodion is binding the silver to the plate.  Tintypes are not made on tin, but on aluminum sheets and it’s essentially the same process.  Tintypes are a little bit easier because the material we use, called trophy plates, is sheets of aluminum with a baked-on black enamel and it is commonly used in engraving and therefore more readily available.

Q.  When and how did you first get involved in photography?
A.  I became haunted with black and white images at the age of ten.  I was in a literature class thumbing through a book that was illustrated with black and white images.  There I saw a series of pictures made by Duane Michaels.  He is still alive today and is probably in his 80s now, but he was really popular in the 1960s and 70s and he did these little stories – little sequential series of pictures.  It was a cross between still photography and film where he used images to tell short five second novels, which I thought was brilliant.  It as then that I decided that I had to learn how to make black and white photographs.  It took me until I was 17, in my last year of high school, to learn that.  Then I really got serious about it in college and started working in the college paper.  During the first year or two I did a lot of landscapes, but due to the influence of working in the paper I decided to become a photojournalist.  That’s where I was for about a decade and the last time I took a picture for a publication was probably 2005.

Q.  What attracted you to the tintype process?
A.  It’s very slow, very deliberate, very messy and very smelly.  It’s very physical – you’re always moving around, and the reason I think I liked photography in the first place was because it involved a lot of moving around and not just sitting in a chair in front of a desk.  When you’re in the darkroom you are moving around and as a journalist you are constantly going different places and taking pictures of different people.  That too was a very fascinating career, but very difficult to get a good job in.  I did get into photojournalism as the newspapers were starting to close, so it was a really bad time to get into the field, but I still wanted to do it.  In the 90s I started working with Polaroids and doing a lot of work for myself on the side.  Around 1996 I also had a job that lasted about a year working for a magazine and the publisher was a very brilliant Pulitzer Prize winning photographer named MannyCrisostomo who used to work at the Detroit Free Press.  He pushed me to experiment and I started working with larger formats again, using Polaroid type 55 film, doing Polaroid transfers.  However by 2002 it became obvious that Polaroid was in deep trouble and was not going to survive.  At about that time I moved out to Los Angeles from Detroit and that was pretty much the end of my photojournalistic career and I had to reinvent myself.  Around that period I have seen some alternative process images and wet plate work being done by contemporary artists.  I saw  original daguerreotype of the burning Twin Towers on 911 by Jerry Spagnoli on display in New York and was really haunted by it and became interested in making daguerreotypes.  I also saw a series of wet plate images by Robert Maxwell – a series of portrait of actors and actresses, models and kids and his work drew me toward wet plate as well.  I was at this fork in the road as I was attracted to both technologies, but when I found out that you had to burn mercury to develop daguerreotypes I decided to go with wet plate collodion.

Q.  What equipment do you use?
A.  I use a reproduction half plate bellows camera made by Ray Mogenweck. His company is called Star Camera Company. I use two backs at a time so I can make two plates every ten minutes...The lens is a no-brand Petzval most likely from the 1860s or 1870s. 
Photographer and his camera.

The man-cave darkroom.

Q.  How did you learn the process, did you teach yourself?
A.  No, I admire anyone who can do something like this on their own and there certainly are videos and other information on the web, but I am the kind of learner that I need to see someone face to face doing it and be able to ask questions.  In 2005 I went to a two-day workshop at the International Center of Photography and got a taste of the process with Joni Sternbach.  She did say that the workshop was pretty much an introduction and if I really wanted to get serious I should go and spend a few days in upstate New York with John Coffer and I did that the following summer.  That’s when I became really hooked and decided to get all the gear and go at it.

Q.  How do you think digital imaging has changed the field of photography?
A.  Well, it’s almost like what the introduction of the Brownie camera by George Eastman in the 1880s – it made it photography much easier and much more accessible by taking a lot of the mystery out of it.  Prior to George Eastman most photographers were professionals and you had to have a lot of money to buy the equipment and get set up and the Brownie brought photography to the masses.  Before digital the company that hired a photographer had to have a lot of trust in the photographer and the fact that he/she knows what they are doing because you couldn’t review the images on the spot.  Prior to digital photography was more valued as a trade and a profession.

Q.  What do you think is the place of film and analog photography today?
A.  I actually rarely use film, though I have recently been thinking of doing some 8x10 because knowing how to do an 8x10 ambrotype I think going back to film will be a lot easier.  However I feel like technology is a banquet and all the technologies are good.  I personally like doing wet plates though, but I don’t shy away from digital as well and recently was in a mobile arts photography show where all the images were taken with phones.  It’s all about making an image and telling a story.

Q.  Do you think there is a benefit to new photographers in learning analog processes?
A.  Yes.  It makes you slower and more deliberate.  For example – I do a lot of my work on plates and so when I use a digital camera now I’m very careful and I’ll do only 3-4 frames and that’ll be it.  I know when I got the shot and there is no need to spend 200 frames and hope that I got something.  So I think film makes you more a more careful shooter.  I teach and I feel that digital has made people more careless – they don’t even want to use a meter because they think that if the exposure is off they can just see it on the screen and correct it.  Digital can be a good learning tool as well, but the fact that you have an unlimited amount of frames makes people less attentive I think.  Other than that I have nothing against it.

Q.  Who were some of your biggest influences?
A.  Besides Duane Michaels I think I owe a lot to my great grandfather - a photographer in a little town in Ontario, Canada.  It was a very small place, so one had to have a lot of trades in order to provide for his 8 children.  So my great grandfather was a photographer, funeral director, cabinet-maker, watch repairman.  
Today there are a lot of people whose work I admire.  The first person that comes to mind is Paolo Roversi, who is an Italian photographer and does very timeless large format images.  At the same time I do come from a photojournalists background and I like the work of people like SebastianSalgado, Eugene Richards and Taryn SimonHowever, while I think it’s important to see the work that’s being currently produced, one does have to be careful not to spend too much time staring at other peoples work.

Q.  Where do you see analog photography in 25 years?
A.  It will be an alternative process just like cyanotypes are now.  I’m a little curious as to where wet plate is going to be because more and more people are jumping on the bandwagon, which is fine – it’s slow photography vs. fast photography.  Just like slow food vs. fast food – some people are fine with eating at McDonalds while others prefer a unique meal made with care and so they will go to an artisan restaurant.  I think a lot of people spend their days in front of the computer, so the idea that when you are not at your job looking at a screen you are going to come home and do more of the same while making pictures is what drives a lot of people to these older processes.  Whether it is film, wet plate, salt prints or other messy hands-on techniques people will be looking to that to put some excitement in their lives.  What’s really nice is that you can mix digital with the old technology and made digital negatives to use with you Van Dyke or platinum prints and I think that’s great too.

Exit time.

Anton Orlov

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