“My first impression was that it was some kind of miracle. It seemed like it created itself in some way. It just didn’t seem like anybody could have made anything like this. It was like a force of nature in this case, it was remarkable.”
— Jerry Spagnoli on the daguerreotype
Artists & Alchemists is a feature documentary film that explores the resurgence of 19th century chemical photography. By following ten renowned photographers creating daguerreotypes, ferrotypes and wet plate collodion photographs, Artists & Alchemists documents the sacrifice and personal vision needed to revive these once forgotten art forms. Viewers enter the studios of Jayne Hinds Bidaut, Chuck Close, John Coffer, Adam Fuss, Mark Kessell, Sally Mann, Mark Osterman, France Scully Osterman, Irving Pobboravsky and Jerry Spagnoli to get a first hand account of how each photographer incorporates this antiquated process into modern art. Interlaced with expert interviews, Artists & Alchemists investigates photography’s origins, technological evolution, and illustrates the profound impact in today’s world.
“There will always be a small, but enthusiastic group of people who are enraptured by the old processes because there is magic to them.”— Mark Kessell
As the technical revolution of digital photography explodes, a group of artists explore previously abandoned forms of chemical photography. Going back to 19th century manuals, these artists rediscover techniques of photography’s pioneers.
Market Street Productions presents: Artists & Alchemists, its feature documentary showcasing ten contemporary photographers resurrecting antiquated and often dangerous, photographic processes. Artists & Alchemists follows artists practicing several pre-film techniques broken down into three categories: daguerreotype, wet plate collodion and tintype. Ten compelling artists share their perspective on photography as they craft contemporary images from a 19th century process.
“With the daguerreotype, the marriage of photograph and mirror is a fantastic one.”— Adam Fuss
Named after its inventor Louis Daguerre, the daguerreotype revolutionized the world after its introduction in 1839. This technique allowed middle class families previously unable to afford the expense of portrait painting, the ability to record their likeness. The daguerreotype is developed by mercury vapors on a polished silver plate previously made sensitive to light and exposed. The resulting image is almost three dimensional in its detail, appearing right beneath a reflective mirrored surface. Five artists in the documentary Chuck Close, Adam Fuss, Jerry Spagnoli, Irving Pobboravsky and Mark Kessell, adopt the rigorous and unpredictable daguerreotype process.
“That’s the thing about collodion; it has this sort of reverential, spiritual aspect to it. It’s contemplative; it has a kind of gravitas to it. It’s almost like some sort of Holy Communion.”— Sally Mann
The wet plate collodion process, invented by Frederick Scott Archer in 1851, was initially used to make negatives on sheets of glass. Exposed in the camera and developed while still wet, the same process could be used to produce an incredibly detailed positive image called an ambrotype. The collodion binder is a highly flammable solution of pyroxylin, ether and alcohol initially used as medical dressing for wounds. Collodion leaves a clear, thin, tough flexible coating perfect for holding light sensitive chemicals on glass. In Artists & Alchemists, photographers Sally Mann, France Scully Osterman and Mark Osterman demonstrate the collodion negative and ambrotype processes and how their individual technique expresses their creative vision.
“I personally wanted to go back in time to explore the medium that I felt had not been explored properly back then. No one had the luxury or desire.”— Jayne Hinds Bidaut
The tintype or ferrotype, is a direct collodion positive on a sheet of black enameled iron, similar to the ambrotype, but on a metal plate. It replaced the daguerreotype as a more convenient and less expensive process and remained popular through the 1920’s at street fairs and carnivals. A gelatin emulsion tintype process was also introduced in the 1880’s. Two artists featured in Artists & Alchemists use tintype methods for their work: John Coffer and Jayne Hinds Bidaut. Both photographers practice the medium with their own technique and vision, exploring the previously underrated tintype in fresh new ways.
Artists & Alchemists gives an in-depth perspective of ten artists published in the highly sought after book: The Antiquarian Avante-Guarde, written by author and photographic expert Lyle Rexer. Lyle and gallery owner Sarah Morthland, who exhibited the first photography show of modern photographs made with 19th century processes, add inside commentary on the work of our featured artists. Grant Romer, former Head of Conservation of the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, and one of the first to create 19th century photography workshops, addresses the implications of this resurgence in the technological revolution of photography.
Photography started on silver before progressing to glass, iron then to paper and can now be transmitted in digital one’s and zero’s. Artists & Alchemists peers into the history of photography, exploring what might have been overlooked and addresses technical evolution through the lens of ten unique artists. Viewers will embark on a journey of beautiful images while gaining a better understanding of photography and its future: a place where digital and chemical methods create unique visions of art.
Extremely hazardous materials are used in the photography development processes shown in this film. Do not attempt to try these processes unless qualified or supervised by a qualified instructor. Moving or still images related to this film are not to be considered instructional procedures for photographic processes.