I have a young student named Montanna. She grew up in the hinterlands of Virginia, but recently moved to the boonies of New Mexico. (Confused yet?)
Montanna often walks 5 miles to and from the bus stop, each way, if she wants to make it to school. She said her folks don’t always have enough gasoline to drive her up the dirt road. Other times, she stays with a neighbor who lives close to the highway.
Yes, we’re living 2014 out here.
New Mexico was just ranked 50th out of 50 states in poverty rate, which is nothing to brag about. The allure of the Wild West comes with a price, I’m afraid. And it’s often hardest on the youth.
Montanna is a committed and bright photographer, so I’d be surprised if she didn’t claw her way success. That type of hardship builds character. It etches itself into one’s countenance, like wrinkles on an orangutan’s face.
Co-incidentally, I saw Montanna staring back at me from a sheet of metal, just the other day.
We had an outdoor art festival here in Taos, last Friday evening. The Native American photographer Will Wilson set up a make-shift studio along the main street. A friend dragged me out at night to see it, which was the equivalent of Dracula venturing out in the daytime.
I bumped into several of my students waiting in line, and watched Mr. Wilson make Montanna’s portrait, using the wet plate collodion process. Then they disappeared into his tent/darkroom, along with the Project Runway contestant Patricia Michaels, who was having her picture made at the same time. (Unfortunately, Heidi Klum couldn’t make it.)
The trio emerged, a few minutes later, and Montanna beamed as she held her tin type for all to see. (Yes, it was dark out, but the bright flood lights more than made up for the black sky.) The portrait managed to capture her toughness, her freckles, and her determination.
I have to say, it was remarkable. These are young artists shooting with cell phones, so the old-school technique demonstrated the magic we all remember, back in the chemical days. It was a revelation for them.
The ubiquity of computerized photographs alters how we view historical processes. They become that much more precious, and the labor involved assumes added import. When everything is so easy, why make it harder on yourself?
It’s a fair question, and one that today’s book can help us answer. “On a Wet Bough” is a large, red hardcover by Keliy Anderson-Staley, released by the nascent publisher Waltz Books, in Indiana.
The artist, whom the end notes tell us was raised “off the grid,” has been making tin types for years. According to the text, we also learn she’s extremely prolific, which suggests she’s patient, hard-working, and perhaps a tad obsessed. (She’d probably be a perfect mentor for young Montanna, come to think of it.)
The book is filled with portraits, made in the style of the 19th Century. But these are not pictures we might confuse with olden days. They’re clearly contemporary.
The sitters stare seriously at the camera, with many a mad-dog look in their eyes. Others seem sad, some are contemplative. Did she tell them not to smile? How much time did she spend with each person? Was she trying to capture their individual souls, or is it more about her desire acquire a volume of personalities?
I was startled to see a few photo-world folks looking at me, like Brian Clamp, Doug DuBois, and Christian Patterson. It broke the illusion that these were all strangers, lacking histories I could easily access. I suppose that’s only an insider read, but surely she considered its impact on a certain type of viewer. (Especially as photographers are typical buyers of photobooks.)
Initially, I wasn’t as captivated as I expected to be. Perhaps it’s because the unique quality of the metal object is essentially lost, once it’s digitized and embedded in paper? That would make sense. Making a book destroys the inherent nature of the pictures.
But then I got to a couple of portraits of shirtless men rocking chest hair. What? The texture and the oddity brought me back into the moment. They were great pictures, but also added a touch of funk and originality that was theretofore lacking.
Next, we get to a section of dual portraits and group pictures that definitely had more zing. Why is that? Does Ms. Anderson-Staley have an easier time chatting when there are more people around? Is it just a coincidence?
Frankly, these types of pictures will always be compared with Julia Margaret Cameron. Fair or not, it’s going to happen. It gives me extra appreciation for Ms. Cameron’s relationship with her sitters, that allowed her to make pictures that really do haunt, two lifetimes later.
These pictures don’t rise to that level, but why should they? They’re from another time, and were cranked out by the hundreds. So I think that’s an inappropriate standard. Especially as this is an accomplished project in its own right.
In a book, seen in the LED glow of 2014, the pictures have a weight and a power I think you’ll appreciate. And they stand as a great reminder that hard work is often its own reward, as cheesy at that might sound in our “selfie-ish” era.
Bottom Line: Very-well-made book of old-school tin type portraits.
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