Recently, I mentioned the concept of a collodion exhibition where the viewer becomes an active participant. By experiencing (touching and handling) the work, the risk inherent in the wet plate collodion process is extended into the gallery setting.
Collodion is a visceral process. The chemical smells linger on a plate months or years later. The viewer should experience that firsthand. Wet plate collodion produces a one-of-a-kind image made in-camera. The collodion artist went to great effort to make even a single plate.
If a glass plate is damaged, that’s its new permanent state. If a plate is dropped or broken, it’s gone. There is no reprint. It is not a copy from a negative. That’s true in the field and I’m wondering if it shouldn’t be true beyond the field.
Would the experience be richer for viewer and artist, if at an exhibition, people had direct interaction with original works? Viewers would become part of the risk of the process. Then risk really would exist in every phase of this process. If you want to talk about risks, isn’t a handling exhibition the biggest risk?
Maybe it’s a stupid idea. Maybe as an artist, the concept would force me to compensate by making multiple plates of the same scene for backups. Or I’d present mostly inferior plates. OR would it push me to make more and better work? Would I become better prepared for every collodion opportunity by making work more often?
This idea also speaks to the business side of art, and how we place value on our work. I’m still not sure how I feel about that. I’m not saying my collodion work is without value or disposable, or that I don’t care if my plates get damaged or destroyed.
I’m saying that I’m sorta kinda almost pseudo willing to push the idea. I work in one of the most archival and permanent photographic processes ever invented. Wouldn’t it be interesting to keep the possibility of impermanence alive in the work?
When we’re given the opportunity to love, we also have the potential of destroying something, either intentionally or by accident, and that’s part of what makes it precious. I don’t appreciate seeing work where I’m forced to stand in front of red velvet ropes and view it through protective glass. What if we were allowed to hold it? Is that trust or stupidity?
I’ve done some tests of the concept:
After my artist talks, I tell viewers that it’s OK to handle my plates. In front of them is a collection of my best plates arranged edge-to-edge on a large black cloth, unframed and unprotected except for the varnish.
Sometimes, someone will slide a plate around for a better view, but that’s about it. Rarely will they pick up a plate. Interestingly, when one does, it’s often lifted so delicately that the plate is almost dropped because of lack of grip, which results in the plate immediately put back down.
At portfolio reviews, almost all reviewers refuse to touch original work. I understand why. I mentioned earlier that a plate is not a print. Interestingly, when I present prints from plates (usually along with the plates themselves), it’s unanimous.
Every time, the reviewer has had no problem touching the prints (as in, pushing them out of the way). In a few cases, the reviewers didn’t even so much as glance at the prints they pushed away from the table to get back to the original plates.
It doesn’t matter whether the prints are digital prints made from computer scans of plates, or traditional wet darkroom prints with the plates used as source negatives. Even if they didn’t feel comfortable touching the plates, they felt a little too comfortable touching the paper versions.
I don’t like basing a conclusion on a single data point, but maybe I am in this case. I keep thinking what happened once at a portfolio review in Atlanta. I placed some small plates on the table in front of my reviewer. He had respectful things to say, but he hesitated to touch them. I felt he wanted to, so I encouraged him to pick them up and examine them if he wished.
Very carefully, he picked one up by the edges and brought it closer to his eyes. He lingered over it, and when he spoke, his comments changed. He stopped using phrases like, “well-crafted object,” and began to use words like, “amazing little things,” “wonderfully delicate,” “exquisite,” and “precious”.
I’m not saying that to brag about my work. My point is, the reviewer was experiencing my plates as I experienced them when I first saw the image materialize during development, and what I saw in the potassium cyanide bath. He was not just viewing them but experiencing them.
He went from viewer to participant. If he had accidentally dropped one, poof! Gone. Just like if I had dropped it getting it out of the case for him, or packaging it up in the first place, or on the airplane, or at home, or when I first got it out of the plate holder.
Now I just need to be OK with my answer to the question, “What’s the worst that can happen?”