Author, professor, and photographic historian, Dr. Geoffrey Batchen, reviewed my wet plate collodion work during his visit to Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) – Atlanta. One of his comments left me frustrated and angry. Another comment was a welcomed validation, but that’s a subject for a future post.
I wanted an objective opinion from a stranger without benefit of context, so I didn’t introduce myself as a Master of Fine Art (MFA) candidate. He didn’t know who I was, what I was attempting to say through my work, or even if the plates on display were original work or found objects. After about 15 minutes viewing and commenting on my work, he made a comment that frustrated and angered me. He questioned why anyone would choose an “obsolete process” to make art.
He just called my process obsolete! Not only that, but he said it in front of instructors who would be on the panel of my MFA Thesis Review a few weeks later. I had wrestled with a good answer to why I do collodion, and Dr. Batchen had added the “obsolete” aspect to it. And the faculty heard it.
The director of our photography program gave me a look that said, “You better be ready to ‘go there’ in your review!” I had seen several MFA Thesis Review practice sessions for other students, and the reviews were brutal. More than once there were tears and meltdowns. SCAD policy allowed for one repeat after a failed thesis review, but a 2nd failure meant that you were out of the MFA program.
I’d been asked before why I do collodion, a complex and dangerous process. My answers were always smart-assish. “I like to make my life harder and more dangerous than it already is,” I’d say, or, “I love the smell of ether and the threat of death from potassium cyanide,” or “Collodion lets me play a dual role of mad scientist and magician.” blah blah blah.
But I’d never been asked to defend why I use an obsolete process. It was obsolete, at least from a photo-historical perspective. But so is film. So are cameras, printers, papers and digital inks, soon as they hit the shelves. So is Photoshop CS4.
Why choose to work in a 150-year-old photographic process that was only around for maybe 40 years before being replaced by a more convenient process? It’s not like the founders of photography would continue in collodion if they were alive today. Why would they? They didn’t stubbornly continue in the process when dry plate and film came along!
I needed a second opinion. In one of my podcasts I found an interview with another PhD, Yale University instructor and master printer, Dr. Richard Bensen. In the podcast, he discussed his book, The Printed Picture, and the changes in printing throughout history. Here is what I was looking for:
“I went to the mailbox and I got a catalog … and I realized that I was the second person to touch the catalog, and the first was the postman. That book was made entirely through mechanical systems, made on a web press, it was folded and bound mechanically, shrink-wrapped, stuck in a pile mechanically, sorted mechanically… no human being touched it. So what’s happening is, the human being is receding from the whole process… The human being is becoming somebody that stands back and manipulates things from a distance.”
That is why I do this! I chose wet plate collodion because, as the artist, I don’t want to become obsolete.
Wet plate collodion is one of the most visceral processes in photographic history. I not only touch the collodion plate before the mailman, but sometimes my DNA is a part of the image. It literally becomes a permanent part of the piece, and is varnished into the image forever. Speaking of forever, the archival qualities of wet plate collodion are unrivaled. More on that in a future post.
Honestly, I don’t remember what I said at my review regarding collodion. All I know is, I passed my MFA Thesis Review on the first attempt, thanks to a doctor who forced me to dig deeper, and another who gave me that eureka moment. Both did it without ever knowing me.
Next time you feel forced to dig deeper for answers, be thankful for the inconvenience.