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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      A Chat with Photographer Tomoko Sawada

      A conversation about Japanese matchmaking traditions, self-portraiture, clothes, and identity.

      When did you start photographing yourself?
      I began making self-portraits when I was 19. It was an assignment for a photography class. I can’t even explain in Japanese why I liked them so much. It was instinctual. It’s as if I knew that this was going to be my style, that this is what I wanted to do. And I’m still doing it because I love the self-portrait, but I don’t know why. 

      What themes are you exploring in your work?
      I’m interested in the relationship between inside and outside. If you wear a sexy dress or if you wear kids clothes or casual clothes, people treat you differently. Even though you are you no matter what you wear. It’s that relationship that makes me think. 

      My new work is from when I was living in New York. When I was in New York, people didn’t think I was Japanese. Sometimes they thought I was Korean or Chines or Mongolian. Even Singaporean. It was funny, when I would go to the Japanese market, they would speak to me in English. When I went to the Korean market, they would speak to me in English again. I don’t seem to look Japanese outside of Japan. I was surprised because I think I look totally Japanese. It’s funny that people’s points of view are totally different.

      Could you talk a little about OMIAI, the series that represents a traditional Japanese matchmaking technique.
      OMIAI is a tradition that is somehow still working today. Usually, there is a matchmaker and photographs are exchanged before meeting. If both sides are interested, they can meet for lunch or dinner accompanied by their parents and steps for marriage proceed from there. In the old days, some people chose their marriage partner just through photographs, without even meeting each other. 

      When OMIAI was exhibited in Japan I saw people making various comments in from of the work. People would say things like, “she looks like a good cook; surely she would prepare delicious meals every day,” or “ this girl could be a perfect bride for my son,” or “I can tell she would not be a good housewife,” or “she’s such a graceful girl; she must be the daughter of a decent family.” Comments like that. 

      What was the process of making that work?
      I gained 10 pounds before I started taking the pictures, and in six months I lost forty pounds, because I wanted to look different in each photo. I wanted to change the way my legs looked. 

      Every weekend I went to the hair salon and put on a kimono. Then I went to the photo studio on the street in Japan. I would take a picture and then change my clothes to western dress. Then I would go to the studio again the next weekend. 

      Did you tell the photographer how you wanted it done?
      I told him I was an artist and wanted to make photographs with him. I told him to think that each weekend new girls would show up to make the OMIAI. I didn’t want him to think of me as the same girl who came every weekend. He understood the concept. 

      We had fun. While he was taking pictures, his wife would tell me how to lose weight. She gave me many tips.


      Tomoko Sawada’s work is on view at the Getty until February 21, 2016 in “The Younger Generation: Contemporary Japanese Photography”

      02/11/16

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