In grade school, I made a pinhole camera out of a shoebox. The lens consisted of a hole in a piece of tinfoil in the front with a cut out for viewing on the opposite end. Photographic paper could be taped inside and exposed. My advantage to my classmates was that I could develop it in my father’s dark room. He was a fashion photographer, and I was often the test subject for lighting. I would also assist my mother with her large format photography—whether it was twirling flowers in a pool for a series, helping hold the Polaroid back to her 8x10 view camera or posing in Samurai costume. Photography has always played an important role in my life.
Making this film has been a rich exploration into the world of the photograph: understanding it’s history, circling back to the present and into a digital future. My journey began in 2001, when I first saw a daguerreotype in person. It was a fascinating photographic object—an almost holographic image on a reflective metal surface. I had to move to just the right angle to see past my reflection and observe the image: a face that appeared trapped just beneath the silver surface. Incredible! The creator of this image, photographer Mark Kessell, had a studio blocks away from my apartment in New York City. I contacted Mark and interviewed our conversation. Here, I was introduced to Lyle Rexer’s, Photography’s Antiquarian Avant-Guarde, a book exploring the growing movement of 19th century processes and a major inspiration for this film.
Several months after September 11th, I moved back to my hometown Los Angeles and attended the intensive American Film Institute MFA Cinematography program. In 2003, I organized a shoot in New York City, interviewing Lyle Rexer and several artists from his book. Lyle, an incredibly articulate author, was able to offer profound insight into each artist in this film and expanded my understanding of other historic processes in photography.
I filmed an interview with artist Adam Fuss in his New York Studio, a brilliant photographer originally from England. Adam challenged the concept that the viewer needed to understand the technical process behind his photographs to appreciate them; pointing out how rarely this is done with painting. Adam was thought provoking and engaging. His camera-less images proved striking and his daguerreotype photograms revolutionary—combining two primal photographic methods to achieve a twenty-first century quality.
I hired a crew and traveled to Rochester, NY, the home of Kodak and The George Eastman House. We interviewed daguerreotype pioneer Irving Pobboravsky, a father figure in the daguerreotype world, mastering the craft since the 1960’s. Irving, a scientist and artist, displayed an exceptional talent in first turning the abandoned daguerreian process into a medium for contemporary art.
Rochester was also the home of France Scully and Mark Osterman, an intriguing husband and wife duo—both experts and teachers of collodion glass plate photography. Mark’s amazing ambrotypes, positive collodion images on black stained glass, of a surrealistic traveling medicine show were humorous and whimsical. France’s salt prints from wet plate collodion negatives were intriguing in her “Sleep Series.”
The scope of the film expanded when I decided to film Jayne Hinds Bidaut and her breathtaking tintypes. Up until this point, I had been making a film focusing on daguerreotypists that had expanded to collodion glass plates. I learned more about the ferrotype, a commercially cheaper photography technique that came soon after the daguerreotype and ambrotype, popular during the civil war. Jayne resurrected the dry plate tintype into modern artistic images of insects, reptiles, fossils and self-portrait nudes.
I was delighted to discover renowned artist Chuck Close, had produced some magnificent daguerreotypes. A fan of his photorealist paintings, I could see his unique vision in his photographs: intense unapologetic close-ups of faces and modern nudes. Chuck suffered a spinal artery collapse in 1988—paralyzing him from the neck down. After the accident, he adapted his painting technique, constructing an attachment to help him hold his brush, and continued to produce several masterpieces. When Chuck decided to do a series of daguerreotypes, his physical condition required collaboration with an accomplished daguerreian photographer, Jerry Spagnoli.
Jerry Spagnoli, an articulate and collected photographer, created stunning daguerreotypes, including landmarks of New York, lightning and anatomical studies. His vast knowledge and skill of the process proved invaluable to this film.
Photographer Sally Mann, named one of the nation’s top photographers by Time Magazine, studied the collodion process with Mark Osterman. Through a course of e-mails, I was invited to film her at her farm in Virginia. Sally Mann, a celebrated photographer in traditional black and white photography, had fallen in love with the collodion process and exploited its perceived imperfections into her art. Sally’s work displayed a striking emotional resonance and she used the process to help communicate her themes of love and loss.
After I graduated AFI in 2005, video technology had exploded, and I was able to go back and shoot Jayne, Jerry, Lyle and Mark Kessell in additional HD. I traveled back to Rochester to shoot the Ostermans in HD in 2006, during the course of shooting a feature film. I still use some of the original DV standard definition. In documentary filmmaking, you flesh out more of your story in editing. We removed sections that weren’t working and really focused on the personalities of the artists and how that worked with their process. My team and I went back in 2007 to get the final elements of the story. We were also able to shoot Grant Romer, Director of Conservation at The Eastman House, who organized the first workshops on 19th century processes in the 1980’s.
I added another artist in 2007, shooting John Coffer in Dundee, NY, a pioneer and master of the wet plate collodion ferrotype (tintype) and glass plate processes. John embraced the 19th Century lifestyle. With no phone, running water or electricity, the producer could only contact him by handwritten letter to arrange the shoot. John’s work, both artistic and beautiful, made no apologies for loving a life now past. He founded Camp Tintype, a leading summer workshop for learning the wet plate ferrotype process.
Telling the story of this film has been a great joy and a long challenge— a passion project weaving through personal milestones, the loss of my father to cancer in 2008 and the births of my two beautiful daughters.
Artists & Alchemists follows contemporary artists crafting 19th century process photographs in an increasingly digital world. I had the tough task of narrowing down to ten artists, there were more that deserve to be in the feature but due to time, and telling this story, hard decisions were made. The concept of Artists & Alchemists could easily be a series, and perhaps one day it will. I have developed an admiration for every single of the artists in this film and could easily make a project on each. A few, such as Chuck Close and Sally Mann have features on them already.
Artists & Alchemists developed from an initial spark of curiosity to a story I was compelled to share. I could not have made this film without a talented team, my editor, Merc Boyan and my wife and partner in life, Stacy, who produced this film from concept to finish and insisted on the best. A special thank you goes to my fine art photographer mother, EF Kitchen, a master of platinum print photography (another 19th century process) for introducing me to Mark Kessell’s daguerreotype, her support and inspiration.
I hope to expose viewers to chemical photography’s evolution as an art form and technology and its influence in our world today. Perhaps this story can bring hope to those mourning the demise of film, that there is a future in which alchemy will always be very much a part of the photographic image.