Behind the Scenes, Getty Villa, Photographs, Film, and Video

Unpixelated: Luther Gerlach Makes Photographs Like It’s 1851

There are digital photographers. And then there’s Luther Gerlach.

In the time it took you to read that last paragraph, you could have snapped six digital photos. It would take Luther half a day to make that many images—on a good day. Why? Because he still makes images the way photographers made them in 1851: using the wet-plate collodion process, a painstaking, multi-step technique that uses a chemical solution on glass plates to capture images with remarkable depth of detail.

At the Getty Villa on a Tuesday morning, preparing for his artist-at-work demonstrations on 19th-century photography, Luther stares intently at his watch and counts the seconds: 1 … 2… 3…. He begins to show anxiety as a light wind rolls through the Outer Peristyle. Faced with a 30-minute exposure on his glass plate, a breeze, even a mild one, can make the photograph look fuzzy or out of focus.

The damage is later confirmed when Luther, with a look of disappointment, steps from the makeshift darkroom in his van and examines the unwanted “soft” look of the trees. While his two assistants head for lunch, he insists on making “just one more” and hurries up to his antique camera to try again.

Despite the slowness of the process, rushing is a big part of the job. Using the wet-plate collodion process means keeping the glass wet. Luther needs to run quickly as possible from his camera to the darkroom to make sure it doesn’t dry up. Fast running times for Luther mean pristine images.

The process is dirty work, too: the wet-plate process leaves his hands smeared with black, brown, and purple spots from the chemicals and liquids. And we all come away sunburned from working outdoors for nine hours.

In a way, though, Luther has it easy compared to the photographers whose work is on view in In Search of Biblical Lands: From Jerusalem to Jordan in Nineteenth-century Photography. He has access to clean water, consistently prepared chemicals, and, a gas-powered vehicle—luxuries that his predecessors, with their horse-drawn darkrooms and hand-mixed photographic brews, would have envied.

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One Comment

  1. Posted September 9, 2011 at 2:00 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this, this is really inspiring work.
    It’s hard to imagine what it’s like to work with a 30 min exposure…

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      #ProvenancePeek: July 31

      Every art object has a story—not only of how it was made, but of how it changed hands over time until it found its current home. That story is provenance.

      This small panel by Dutch master Gerrit Dou (photographed only in black and white) is now in the collection of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. It was sold to American collector Robert Sterling Clark, an heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune, in the summer of 1922.

      How do we know this? Archival sleuthing! A peek into the handwritten stock books of M. Knoedler & Co. (book 7, page 10, row 40, to be exact) records the Dou in “July 1922” (right page, margin). Turning to the sales books, which lists dates and prices, we again find the painting under the heading “New York July 1922,” with its inventory number 14892. A tiny “31” in superscript above Clark’s name indicates the date the sale was recorded.

      M. Knoedler was one of the most influential dealers in the history of art, selling European paintings to collectors whose collections formed the genesis of great U.S. museums. The Knoedler stock books have recently been digitized and transformed into a searchable database, which anyone can query for free.

      Girl at a Window, 1623–75, Gerrit Dou. Oil on panel, 10 9/16 x 7 ½ in. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts


      #ProvenancePeek is a monthly series by research assistant Kelly Davis peeking into #onthisday provenance finds from the M. Knoedler & Co. archives at the Getty Research Institute.

      07/31/15

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