In our conversation with artist Keliy Anderson-Staley, we talk about working with the collodion process, editing images for her first monograph, and what she’s doing after publication of On a Wet Bough. Keliy has exhibited her work for over a decade in solo and group exhibitions at institutions including the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; Moscow Museum of Modern Art, Russia; the California Museum of Photography; and the Southeast Museum of Photography. Her work is in the collections of Portland Museum of Art, Maine; the Library of Congress; and Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, Iowa. She is represented by Catherine Edelman Gallery in Chicago.
Mary Goodwin: You’ve been working with tintypes and the wet collodion process for several years now. How did you first become interested in making images this way?
Keliy Anderson-Staley: I came to the process through portraiture. I had been making color portraits of people living off the grid in the part of Maine where I grew up. Those portraits were environmental, showing people in their cabins and gardens. With the wet plate process, I can create portraits that are very different from those made with other photographic mediums, including the ones I was making in Maine. The process allows me to strip away some of the context, isolating faces and allowing the person in the image to really stand alone, without any references to place.
This process—particularly the antique brass lenses that I use—is especially good for portraiture. I use a shallow depth of field to bring the sitter’s eyes into sharp relief. The slow collodion extends the exposure time long enough for the individual and his or her expression to be captured over many seconds. So for technical reasons, this process has allowed me to photograph people in a revealing way. I am also drawn to it because of my long interest in photographic history. Portraits were the most common product of early tintype photographers, and I have always been struck by how much our sense of that era, and even of the people themselves, can’t be separated from the photographic methods that allow us to see them now as they were.
MG: I’ve always enjoyed the conceptual links between your tintype work and Off the Grid. Both series speak to authenticity and a fundamental questioning of how we do things; also there is an emphasis on hand-crafting in both. The homes in Off the Grid have an organic individuality, just as the hand-poured emulsion of each tintype is unique, each carrying the traces of the maker in the product.
KAS: Many of the folks in my Off the Grid series chop their own wood, pump water, and grow most of what they eat. Some even harvest ice, build their homes from hand-prepared logs, and make their own clothes. They have a connection to the things that they consume in ways that many of us don’t. Working with wet chemistry in a darkroom, I think a photographer is maybe a bit more connected to the physical processes involved in making an image. They are more at the mercy of the elements, too, especially to light levels, temperature, and humidity, which is less relevant when using a digital camera.
Hand-crafted items have the mark of the maker on them. Some of the Off the Grid individuals make baskets, leather items, and hand-carved knives. Even when finely finished, these items have tool marks in them, signs of the hands that made them. Wet-plate collodion images also have these marks: Every pour of the chemistry is done by hand, so you can see the direction the liquid flowed or how I turned the plate before the collodion or developer reached the plate’s edge. It’s an actual object in a way other types of photographs aren’t. I don’t necessarily think of it as a craft because I am just a photographer using a particular medium as all photographers do, but there is a manual, artisan element to making these images, as the hand works in collaboration with the eye.
MG: Re-examining the wet collodion process at this stage in photographic history is almost an act of rebellion. I imagine that working this way is difficult but also very freeing—you don’t have to worry about your favorite film stock or paper being discontinued or upgrading to the latest version of an image-editing program.
KAS: When I was still shooting medium and large color film, I did have a sense that the supplies were vanishing. It was harder and harder to find labs and darkrooms to make analogue C-prints. Oddly, the materials and supplies for wet plate collodion photography can still be bought and made, in part because they have other applications: Collodion and ether, for example, are important in the medical field. I can gather everything I need and make images in my own darkroom at home, or even in a “darkbox” on location. So I can get the unique properties of a one-of-a-kind hand-made image instantly and without a photo lab. In that sense, I think it’s fairly freeing.
Digital technologies, though, are also essential to my work—scanning images for presentation online and sometimes printing images digitally for exhibition. The real freedom for contemporary photographers comes from the fact that the materials for every photographic process ever used are available. It’s just a matter of finding the right process for the project.
MG: Let’s talk about how this work functions in the book format. Publishing On a Wet Bough obviously allows us to disseminate the work, which has special implications when you’re making images using a process that yields a unique object. But more importantly, the intimacy of the book enhances the idea and power of the gaze—both from the subject and the viewer looking at the book.
KAS: These faces need to be studied. When they are installed in a gallery, I put a lot of them on the wall, so a viewer’s attention is pulled in many directions. People tend to be drawn to different ones, and I always wonder why one face has a greater pull for them than another. On the wall, though, you aren’t forced to grapple with each face one at a time. The book makes this an essential part of the experience of the images. Every face is given equal weight, and the individuality of each person is highlighted. I hope that the experience of looking at the book is intimate, but also challenging—these faces are all staring back, demanding to be seen.
MG: We’ve been working on the editing and sequencing of the series since November 2012. Our initial image selection session was three 14-hour days, after which we had a selection of 200 or so images. Pretty much a marathon of looking for me . . . and it was so hard to remove some portraits from the selection. As we edited the images for the book, we knew we wanted a diversity of faces for the final selection. Beyond that, how did you approach selecting images for the book?
KAS: I have several thousand portraits now, not all of them of exhibition quality, and many of them are archived, so I am always surprised when I start pulling them out and seeing faces I haven’t seen in years. I think you and I edited the images in the book down from a possible set of 800. It was hard to let certain people go. I always want as many to be seen as possible—as if somehow I’m not doing someone justice by keeping them out. My attraction to certain plates waxes and wanes, too. For a long time, I might find one image to be particularly striking, even “iconic,” only to lose interest in it over time. But then some face that I neglected, a portrait that I thought wasn’t composed ideally or was too much like another will jump out at me. I’ll wonder how I hadn’t noticed it before, or how I could have forgotten it. They are like friends to me, maybe, in that regard. I know the names of all of the subjects, and I refer to them by their first names, which is how they are filed in my archives.
MG: Translating these portraits from the original tintype to ink and paper often involves a reinterpretation of the image in terms of the contrast, color, and aberrations in the emulsion. In a way these images have multiple lives—they live completely differently on the wall as objects as opposed to on the printed page.
KAS: Some adjustments do need to be made to the images in order to be seen in book form. When scanned or re-photographed they flatten out, and the rich color of the plate can often take on a strange magenta/green rainbow that needs to be corrected. The images in the book will be as true as possible to the original plates, but they need to be prepared for optimal viewing in book form. On the wall they have an almost sculptural appearance—you’re aware of the metal substrate, and as you move in front of the image the light strikes it differently and the contrast shifts. So they are something different on paper, and I hope both modes of viewing supplement each other and enrich the ways that the images are experienced.
MG: The title of the book, On a Wet Bough, references the Ezra Pound poem In a Station of the Metro. Your tintype portraits have always made me think of this poem . . . there is a beautiful and pleasurable connection between the mental image of petals on a wet bough and the emulsion on substrate. Also, I enjoy the play between concreteness and transience in both your tintype portraits and the poem.
KAS: I think any portrait can make us think about mortality and transience, but this process—because in a sense it bears an imprint—maybe heightens our sense of time. With these images, actual light strikes the subjects, bounces off of them, passes through the lens, and strikes the liquid emulsion on the plate. Yet these plates are also solid and metal, seemingly permanent. So they can be both a haunting reminder of the passing of time and a sign of our futile attempts to hold on.
MG: What’s the future for this series of work, and what’s coming up for you after publication of On a Wet Bough?
KAS: I’m already planning to make more tintype portraits in conjunction with a few nonprofits in Houston, San Francisco, and elsewhere. I have been fortunate to have some of these images collected into private and public collections. I have a few exhibitions lined up for the upcoming year, and I hope to continue to find new ways to exhibit this work and give people the opportunity to see the tintype plates in person. I’m also working on an ongoing project, An Archive of Inherited Fictions, which explores how we use images and inherited objects to create a sense of cultural and personal identity.