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.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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…

Post a Comment

Your email is never published or shared. Required fields are marked *

*
*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

  • Facebook

  • Twitter

  • Tumblr

    • photo from Tumblr

      What can you hear at the museum?

      Artist Elana Mann creates participatory sonic experiences and invites you to listen in. More on the Iris.

      • How do sounds change depending on your body position, your direction, your eyes open or closed, or the position of the histophone? 
      • Can you imagine sounds coming from the art, architecture, and gardens?
      • If a sculpture could speak, what would it say? 
      • What are sounds you can make with your own body? 
      • Can you hear the tectonic plates shifting underneath your feet? 
      • How are natural and man-made sounds mixing and blending in this environment? 

      A list of the sounds that have reverberated through my body, 2013, Elana Mann. Cut photographs on paper. 

      07/21/14

  • Flickr