Q&A: Jennifer Schwartz Talks Shop on Wet Plate and Mirrors

Keliy Anderson-Staley, Jeremy, 2010. Image courtesy Jennifer Schwartz Gallery.

Wet Plate and Mirrors, an exhibit at Jennifer Schwartz Gallery featuring contemporary Daguerreotype and tintype photography, captures a subject through the tedious stillness necessary for the slow development of these archaic processes. The constrained pose and tense gaze of the sitter reveals a caged-animal sensibility that connects the trapped image to the spectator—reflecting a kind of captivity on both ends. A portrait that may have passed unnoticed is instead forever harnessed.

Keliy Anderson-Staley’s portrait, Jeremy, holds this primal quality. The man stares out from the center of a hypnotic silver haze. Only his face is in focus, though a slight glint on his glasses distracts from the tenacity of his fixation. This Daguerreotype, printed on a mirrored surface, contains a subtle interactivity with the subject, who seemingly looks out at the viewer. In reality, of course, he’s not watching the viewer, but simply focusing on the camera’s mechanism, fixing a presentation of himself for future observers to accept. This reflexiveness of vision appropriately mimics the surface on which his image is printed.

Joni Sternbach, Mary Ellen (Montauk, NY), 2008, tintype, 8 x 10 inches. Image courtesy Jennifer Schwartz Gallery.
Keliy, Anderson-Staley, Helen, 2009. Image courtesy Jennifer Schwartz Gallery.

Intrigued by these strange techniques, I emailed a few questions to the gallery’s owner, Jennifer Schwartz, to learn her thoughts. She explained, among other things, the exhibition’s title, Wet Plate and Mirrors: the first part refers to the wet-plate collodion process, and the second part is an allusion to the reflective surface of Daguerreotype images. An excerpt of our interview appears below.

Grace Thornton: Many artists reference a need to slow down their work as a counterpoint to the high speed and technology of modern life. What does the use of historical process add to portraits of modern subjects?

Jennifer Schwartz: The rich detail that can be achieved using these historic processes is astounding and gives the subject of the photograph a depth that I think is unparalleled in contemporary image capture. There definitely seems to be a growing trend in the use of these older processes, and the reaction against the accessibility and rapid-fire nature of digital photography may very well be a reason. To work with wet plates requires incredible patience, training, and effort. Every image counts, so there is an inherent thoughtfulness to it as well.

GT: The gallery’s press release says, “Using these slow and labor-intensive processes, photographers are finding the power of a medium that forces collaboration with the subject.” Can you explain how the medium forces collaboration with the subject of the photograph?

JS: Because the image-capture process is slow and labor-intensive, there is no such thing as a “snapshot.”  The subject is very aware of the photograph being taken and, by necessity, is a willing participant, which creates more of a creative partnership between the photographer and the subject.

David Prifti, Stasia, 2007. Image courtesy Jennifer Schwartz Gallery.

GT: How strong is modern photography’s relationship with the process of Daguerreotypes and tintypes? It seems the two have become separate methods, as different as still photographs are from moving film.

JS: There is absolutely a relationship. The photographic medium is still in its infancy, relative to other art forms. Beyond just the historical significance of these images, modern photographers are finding ways to pair contemporary imagery with the unique look and feel of these historic processes to create something very new and fresh.

GT: Polaroids are iconic relics of the past that have been a revitalized trend in the twenty-first century. There are even iPhone apps that mimic Polaroid-style development, as well as other apps that give a sepia-toned or a washed-out, nostalgic look to pictures. Will photography always have this rebellion against its own technological advancement?

JS: I think we are all drawn to nostalgia, and Polaroid really epitomizes that. The look and feel of a Polaroid image is unique, and for many of us, it is the look of our childhood. That is a powerful draw. And although digital photography is instant, in the sense that you can see the image you took right away on the screen, an instant-film camera is something else entirely.  You get to hold a unique object in your hand. That experience is rare.

The exhibitions, Wet Plate and Mirrors and Instant Gratification, continue at Jennifer Schwartz Gallery through November 26, 2011.


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