My wife and I live in Southern Maryland near Amish communities. Amish are wonderful, hard-working people, but resistant to embrace outsiders with cameras. Photographers who document Amish life must first build trust and acceptance over time. When the camera finally comes out within an Amish community, the photographer must use every non-invasive technique possible.
This careful approach doesn’t always work. Old Order Amish strictly prohibit photographic portraits of any kind. They don’t believe photography captures the soul. They believe that a photographic portrait, at its core, is about vanity. To them, a photograph is a graven image and therefore displeasing to God.
Strong beliefs about the power of photography can be traced back to the early days of the medium. The daguerreotype of the 1830s and wet plate collodion of the 1850s introduced a new and frightening phenomenon into 19th century society. Even the most detailed drawings and paintings lacked the striking realism revealed through photography. Viewers of photographic portraits said the faces were staring back at them! Some of that time called cameras soul-stealers.
There are cultures today that still believe photography has the power to capture the soul. But that’s exactly what most of us photographers strive to do in our images, portraits or otherwise. We want to capture the soul of the viewer, or to at least stir it.
Three years ago, I visited my parents in West Virginia and convinced them to sit for a series of wet plate collodion portraits. I saw my mom staring at a plate I had just made of Dad (who everybody calls, “Junior”). I told Mom it has been said that wet plate collodion reveals the true character of the subject. She looked at the image of Dad, then at him, then back at the image. She laughed and said, “Junior, you’re going to hell! You look like a serial killer!” According to Mom, Dad has a lot of praying to do.
For some reason, I was not able to create a clear image of Mom. Every plate I did of her had a strange abstract quality. I had experimented with using old developer and the residue at the bottom of the collodion bottle that day, but I can’t blame her images on that, because I used the same experimental approach on the above mage of Dad.
Here’s the best plate I made of Mom:
If wet plate collodion reveals the true character of the subject, what was it saying about my mom? Was her essence really melting away? Was she dissolving before our eyes? All I know is, Mom died of cancer the following year. August 23, 2011 is the 2nd anniversary of her death.
Thanks, Mom, for buying me my first camera, for your support of my art over the years, and for your love.
We’ve got souls to stir or to capture. Or to celebrate. Let’s make stuff and see what happens!