Suspect Photography

words and images from david george brommer

Tag: portrait

The Old Tuscan Farmer and Every Picture Matters Lesson

The Old Tuscan Farmer in the Cortona market

The Old Tuscan Farmer in the Cortona market

On Saturday mornings in Cortona the market comes to the squares. It’s where we buy our produce, and Barbara’s family has been shopping there for seemingly forever. We have a favorite farmer, and when I met him, he was old. Italian countryside old, which means he looks older than he is due to that famous Tuscan sun. Plus farmers always age harder than regular folk do. His stall was attended by his extremely nice wife (equally as old, but very sturdy), and who I think is his daughter in law, along with his son and a few others who might be family but might be farm hands helping to bring the crop to the market. For as long as I have been coming to Cortona, this has been the same. They are very nice, and the old farmer is jolly and congenial, he always has a firm handshake and a grand smile. For the life of me, I have a problem understanding older Italians and we would go back and forth talking and I never really knew what he was saying or if he understood me, but I grew to like him immensely, he became part of what I love about Cortona.

Two years ago he stopped working the main part of the stall, and broke off to the side setting up next to a wall, sitting mostly, and selling herbs in little pots. No more the heavy melons and sacks of tomatoes, this aspect of the business was now delegated to his wife and the kids. His hands would be always wrapped around a cane, and it was understood he was letting the next generation take over and he would just be in charge of a much smaller crop. When asked how he was feeling, he shook his head and said he was fine, but age was taking its toll on the old farmer, and his pride wouldn’t let him stay home, complain, nor stop what he had been doing his whole life. When I was working on my Instant Italy project (shooting Fujifilm Instax photos exclusively) I took a fine photograph of the old farmer and tried to give it to him but he didn’t comprehend an instant photo so I slipped it in his top pocket as the image was developing. I shot a second photograph of him, the one I would keep, but didn’t come out well. Pointing a camera at the old farmer produced a random result because he didn’t keep still and was always in conversation with who ever would be near him. The next year, I came with the Fuji X-Pro 1 and had decided that I would shoot the people I knew, but I would do it unobtrusively and I would focus on thier hands frequently.

I was eager to be shooting him, and as Barbara and mom selected produce I chatted him up and photographed his hands wrapped around his now ever present cane. I made one exposure, that’s all. I didn’t want to be intrusive as he was now engrossed in another conversation. We saw him a few more times that year on following Saturdays but I had my image.

This year we trotted through the market to buy our produce. I looked forward greatly to seeing the old farmer and being in the presence of his smile and hearing his undecipherable Italian. When we turned the corner the herbs where there, in little black plastic pots but he was nowhere to be seen. His wife upon seeing Barbara and mom greeted us, and mom and Barbara had an exchange with her. They asked where he was and I was hoping for another story of what I had already gotten and inkling about. The farmer’s wife looked down, and said something I of course couldn’t follow. Barbara turned slowly to me and lamented, “he’s gone” with a long face confirming what I had already suspected. He had passed 4 months ago, and further details were absent. I hoped it was an easy passing, and I walked away sadly, feeling empty, like a little part of my summer was forever gone, and then I thought about the photo of his hands. Holding on to his cane, and perhaps a grip onto this world for his last year here. The old farmer will live on in my memories and in that photograph, as well as the Fujifilm Instax photo. I don’t have the latter, but I hope his family found it in his belongings and it’s sitting on a hearth in the farmhouse.

Photography is powerful, it can make a man immortal or conjure the emotions of a past moment. As I lamented the passing of my nameless old farmer I knew I would treasure that image for all time. When I made the image I was thinking of how I could elaborate on my style and work that I shoot in Tuscany. When I edited the image I was unimpressed and not too excited about the photograph I had made. Now, with his passing the condition has changed dramatically, the importance of the image magnified.

Never ever take an exposure for granted. What is drab can become brilliant, what is mundane exceptional. Photographs like wine can into something far more important and relevant than what you thought during the 1/60th of a second it took to expose.

Every picture matters.

Image made with Fujifilm XPro1 and 35mm 1.4  shot in film sim B&W Mode 1:1 format. Processed in Snapseed.

Adventures in Dripping Wet Photography, Wet Plate Collodion That Is.

Portrait of the Photographer Brenton Hamilton, 8×10 Tintype, 14″ Kodak Commercial Ektar 8 Seconds @ F 8

Late last June, I took a class on Wet Plate Collodion at the Maine Media Workshops with Jell Enfield. I had been wanting to take this class for a few years, but the schedules never seemed to coincide. However in 2012 the stars were in alignment and there I found myself in one of my favorite places in the world, the Hass Lab on the Maine Workshops homestead campus. Things were about to get wet and some interesting images were to be taken.

2012 Collodion Class at MMW shot at Rockport Harbor.
Fuji Xpro 1, 18mm Lens post process NIK Silver EFx Antique Plate II Filter.

Possibly one of the best aspects of this class were the other students and teacher assistants. Seems that Wet Plate attracts an odd lot of photographers so our group was always on the large size, which was great because a model (interesting, beautiful & cool at that) was easy to get in front of the camera. Also, the large number of T/A’s made it easy to get chemistry poured, cars loaded, darkroom tents set up, and advice. We had the assistance of a local who is a supplier for wet plate paraphernalia, Niles Lund. He would prove invaluable (he did a mod on one of my Fidelity 8×10 holders to a wet plate holder for $40) as a second to our fearless and silver stained instructor, the inimical Jill Enfield. Jill mixes passion, intuitiveness, and experience into her wet plate endeavors. It was an honor to spend the week with Jill and learn this technique. Check out Jill’s time lapse video of her shooting in NYC’s Tompkins Sq. Park to get a feel for Jill and the process.

Portrait of Kendra 8×10 Tintype Kodak 14″ Comercial Ektar Lens, 10 Seconds F8 Note: Kendra is covered in beautiful tattoos, however since Collodion is sensitive to UV light, tattoos don’t show up in the image.

I’m not going to get into the technical details of wet plate. My fellow student, uber geek and all around super cool photographer chick Sarah did a great job describing the technique on her tumblr blog. So if you aren’t familiar with wet plate I suggest you go, otherwise Ill summarize. Before there was digital there was film, and before there was film there was wet plate. Wet plate is primitive, you have to prepare, shoot and develop your plate all within 10 minutes. In the early days of photography back in 1850 it was state of the art, but now it is ranked as one the golden children of the alternative process movement. Wet plate is a slow speed black and white process with film speed rating ISO 6 to  ISO 10. Thus the long exposures compared to.. well… anything else! It’s also difficult to do, you have to possess manual dexterity to get the various chemistry to adhere, flow, coat, and develop. This process is not for the klutzy, you will have really sloppy plates. And the weird part? Sometimes that’s not bad.

Portrait of Sarah 8×10 Tintype Dagor 8 1/4″ 12 Seconds @ F 8

One thing that was going through my head lately as I embraced the Wet Plate technique, was how does it fit in the “big” picture of photography? Why would one do this whilst the look can be easily replicated in Photoshop? I’m sure the wet plate practinioner just gasped, but really, it’s a lot of work and commitment to make wet plate collodion photographs opposed to running CS6 loaded with a some NIK filters. There are many reasons to do Wet Plate all digital joking aside. For those of us who like to stain your fingers and dig into the process, it takes you back to a humble, hard and complicated era of photography. Think of it as a way to walk in your Great, Great Grand Daddy’s shoes. (I’m not implying my lineage includes a photographer, as far as I know, aside from Uncle Harold, I’m really the first to embrace it). I made it hard on my self, going for 8×10 instead of 4×5, my images took twice the dexterity and acumen to accomplish a good plate. I like to ride a bitch however; I made two 4×5 Ambrotypes and switched over to the Deardorff. Jill also shoots with a Deardorff, and it is a choice camera to work with. Darn thing is solid like a Sherman tank (and just as heavy).

Portrait of Bari, 8×10 Tintype, Kodak Commercial 14″ 10 Seconds @ F8 Note the bad pour of developer that caused the black splotch.

A small concern about Wet Plate is its look. It attracts and scares me at the same time. It’s a look that you can point your finger at and say, “ohh wet plate, cool”. Jill did mention the ability to use watercolor pigment and a few other tricks to own your image more than just executing a great plate. Niles was using an old Dallmeyer brass lens with out a shutter, just timing his shots the old fashioned way, removing the lens cap and counting “one one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand”. Throw precision away with spent developer, because Jill’s count was different than Niles count and I used my handy timer from my view camera kit. See, I learned view camera from Gordon Hutchings who learned from Morley Bear who are F64’s at heart. I’m a bit of a zoney, for better or worse so I found some of the wet plate technique haphazard and random. The look however is ingenuous to the technique, and that is where I have a hard time swallowing the process. This may be the key, process. Wet Plate is thick with process, control of the chemistry, effects of contamination, and also long exposures. The portraits taken during the era of wet plate were all almost somber and dour expressions. You can’t hold an ear-to-ear grin of a smile for 20 seconds. As a wet plate subject and to record a sharp face you must relax your muscles and be very still. The results are a serious subject. Landscapes tend to take on a pictorialist feel, and again, slow shutters speeds make for odd bedfellows including foliage in the wind soft, water amorfourous and action blurry. Nature of the beast when you eat shoot at ISO 6.

Portrait of the Incredible Mya, 8×10 Tintype, 14″ Kodak Commercial Ektar 10 Seconds @ F 8

Would I switch to this workflow and shoot a project with it? I’m going to say the answer is no. My reason is that I need to concentrate on the subject and executing the project as a whole. My current project, Battlefield Cant has already begun with Ilford FP4 8×10 film, I can’t switch now. And even if I did, setting up portable darkrooms and maintaining the chemistry in the field is way too invested for the return. That all being said, would I shoot wet plate again? Yes, it is an honor to shoot wet plate as our photographic forefathers did. Wet plate is complicated and the results somewhat unpredictable, and that may be it’s joy.

JIll Enfield demonstrating coating technique. Note the portable tent darkroom.
Fuji Xpro 1, 18mm Lens post process NIK Silver EFx Antique Plate II Filter.

Aside from learning the wet plate technique I got to cover some new ground. Because the class attracted seemingly eccentric and cool devotees I got to practice 8×10 Portraiture. I really cannot take a photo of a mundane person; I need some style or something strong inside a person to capture. It had been bugging me, how do you capture a person with an 8×10 view? Doesn’t the camera and film holder come between you and your subject? Square up camera, focus, place subject, compose, focus again, hold really still, insert film holder, and make exposure. Daunting right? I worked through it, I asked my subjects some thing cheesy but effective, I asked them to hold really still and look into the lens while telling the camera a secret, using telepathy of course. The results on several were quite compelling. Brenton Hamilton’s portrait is a favorite of mine. Photographic opportunism presented itself when Joyce Tenneson paddled up in a kayak to where we were set up on Day 4. Once again, that creative cauldron of Maine Media Workshops tests you, makes you “go up levels”.

Portrait of Jesse 8×10 Ambrotype Dagor 8 1/4″ 8 seconds @ F 11

Life is but a dream with Joyce Tenneson kayaking in Rockport Maine. 8×10 Tintype, Dagor 8 1/4 lens 12 Seconds F6.3

I’d like to thank Maine Media Workshops, Jill Enfield and my classmates for wonderful week of photography.

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