19th Century Photography Techniques are Back

A group of contemporary creators has decided to go back to the origins of photography, and continue to work with techniques that are nearly 200 years old. Looking at the romantic styles of their predecessors, the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic has revived in contemporary image-making. This has been the case of the Adam Fuss series Home and the World, where the British artist explores the metaphysical side of mortality, capturing its symbolism with early photographic techniques.

Fuss uses a bed as a recurring prop in an enigmatic way. As he told The Creators Project in 2016, “I don’t see the 19th Century processes as 19th Century, I see them more as historically neutral as their use in the 19th Century was based on commercial issues. If you remove that aspect, they are just really processes, and are really interesting for their printing and artistic possibilities.”

Not only does Fuss connect to the past through the photographic technique he uses, the daguerrotype, but also through the objects he has chosen to photograph: the use of the snakes in his images connects to the renewal of life; the snake is symbolic of healing and is entwined in the biblical story of Eve and the expulsion from Eden.

According to Fuss, the daguerreotype, with its shifting positive and negative values, seemed the ideal medium to pursue his investigation: ”It seems like the snake is behind or just below the surface. Or even present but invisible…perhaps in these works it is given form,” explained Fuss in the frame of his exhibition at the Hans P. Kraus Jr. Fine Photographs entitled Adam Fuss Daguerreotypes & The Womb of the Pre-Raphaelite Imagination (2016).

The collodion process’ imperfections also compelled US photographer Sally Mann, who developed the self portrait series Upon Reflection as a conscious choice to speak about decay through her own injured body. The work is divided into two series, Self-Portraits (of the artist’s face) and Omphalos (figure studies of the torso), many of which are presented in grids of multiple images.

The images themselves are glass-plate ambrotype positives straight from the camera, made with the wet-plate collodion process. Its blurry ghost-like quality, enhanced with the sepia tones and the texture given by the emulsion on the glass-plates, relate to a forgotten time and place.

The Tangible and Permanent over the Abstract and Temporary

Another photographer best known for the revival of the wet-plate collodion process in the USA and Europe is Quinn Jacobson, who teaches and evangelizes the wet-plate collodion process all over the world.

Fascinated by the people who live “on the fringes of society”, for his first photographic series Quinn used photography to explore the memories of the people he met in his hometown in Utah. Under the title Portraits from Madison Avenue, he pictures people that have been marginalized by society.

Impacted by the work of August Sander, Quinn started to question himself on issues of identity, difference, memory and justice. “I want to create work that evokes rather than tells, and suggests rather than explains”, says Quinn Jacobson about this photographic series, where he also explores issues of otherness of the people and places we tend to ignore or choose to forget, while establishing an analogy between the people photographed, “abandoned and forgotten by society”, and the wet-collodion photographic process. His work also involves shooting and processing outdoors, which requires setting up an outdoor studio and lab.

Feeling frustrated with the meaninglessness of most digital photography, in combination with a desire to make something with his hands, US photographer Matt Alberts chose to work with the wet-collodion process after mastering the technique with Quinn Jacobson. “In February of 2013 I took a class taught by Quinn Jacobson and thereafter we became good friends. I related to Quinn’s philosophy that the collodion process should be used to create something meaningful; he took me under his wing and he became my mentor”, says the photographer on his Website.

From then on Alberts has devoted himself to a project entitled The Lifers Project, a series of portraits of individuals who are passionate about their pursuits. “A Lifer pushes the limits and restraints of everyday life in order to truly live the life they want. A Lifer is passionate, bold, optimistic, and truly pursues life with power and anticipation”, says Alberts about his photographic work.

The project involved traveling in a truck with a group of friends and an Airstream trailer to New Mexico, Arizona and California, in order to capture skateboarders “making sure we stopped all along the route in search of every ditch, backyard pool, and bowl there was to skate (…) we were welcomed by Lifers into their environments to capture what they love about skateboarding”, explained Alberts on his Website.

“Light through Glass, Forged in Dreams”
Also inspired in 19th Century portraiture, photographer Adrian Whipp founded in 2012 the Lumiere Tintype Photography, a traveling studio that offered the chance of having a portrait of loved ones available to everybody and in an old-fashion style.

According to Whipp, digital photography has pushed aside the world of local portrait studios and therefore the chance of having affordable, high quality and tangible lasting objects. After learning the craft of tintype photography, he decided to build the Lumiere Travelling Portrait Studio. “Designed as homage to the traveling photographers of old, this full-service studio and darkroom is fully equipped to shoot classic portraiture almost anywhere”.

Adrian’s goal with Lumiere is to introduce people to the magic of analog photography, and to create timeless, handmade portraits that will last for generations. Primarily based in Austin, Texas, Adrian spends the summer months traveling the country, making portraits on the road.

Patrick Demmons is the owner/photographer behind the Revival Tintype Studio. According to the bio on his Website, his interest and passion for photography began at a very young age, when his godmother gave him a Pentax Spotmatic which she had used during her time in the Peace Corps.

Also frustrated with the disposable and intangible nature of digital photography, Patrick started looking backwards, and fell in love with historical processes, including wet-plate collodion, or tintype photography. The message on his Website explains his motivation: ”Tangible. Honest. Permanent. Handcrafted portraits like your great, great grandfather took. Vintage keepsakes for the digital age”.