I first met S. Gayle Stevens while reviewing her portfolio during Photonola 2009. I was immediately impressed by her inventive spirit, dedication and of course her imagery. Since then, she’s been winning awards and exhibiting regularly. Matter of fact, I recently awarded her image Absinthe Of Self (above) first place in the Plastic Fantastic II exhibition at Lightbox Gallery in Astoria, Oregon.
Here’s an excerpt from a recent chat we had about her work.
SUSAN BURNSTINE: What were your beginnings as a photographer and when did you realize it would become your chosen form of expression?
S. GAYLE STEVENS: My ex-husband bought me a Nikon many moons ago but I don’t think I truly recognized photography’s potential for me until I read Photographic Possibilities by Bob Hirsch. I went through that book trying everything stereo, pinhole, and plastic cameras. Loved it, though I still went back and forth, sculpture, installation, and then back to photography and I always came back to photography so… I can actually combine all my loves into this medium.
SB: When did you first begin using the wet plate collodion process, where did you learn it and what is it about the process that inspires you most?
GS: My life changing moment came three years ago when I took France Scully Osterman’s wet plate workshop at the f295 Symposium. The first time I poured a plate in France’ class I was hooked. That dark placid pool beckoned me lured me to the black arts and forever would I have black hands. I followed up with a workshop with Michael Mazzeo at Peter’s Valley several months later and the next year finished with a workshop with John Coffer. I’ve had a rounded education.
I think part of the reason I initially wanted to learn wet plate was I was exploring all aspects of photography. I learned many antiquarian processes, I started making my own pinhole cameras, I learned to make paper for my processes and I wanted to make my own negatives on glass but wasn’t thrilled with the liquid emulsion I was using. I wanted to learn the authentic process. What I found when I started the process was how well it fits me. I am a very hands on person; you can’t get more hands on than wet plate. I like the feel of the plate as I pour the collodion on it; it gets cool. I like the smells of the chemicals from the collodion to the varnish. It is being an alchemist, mixing this mysterious brew with ether and alcohol and nitrated gun cotton and sensitizing in silver. I learn so much from each plate I pour. I love each flaw; each accident teaches me something new about this process. I have used that knowledge to change how I work with the collodion.
SB: What was your motive for marrying plastic cameras with the wet plate collodion process?
GS:There actually were a lot of motives. I new I was going to introduce this process to my alternative process students and they can’t all go out and buy period cameras so a Holga would be an affordable alternative. I was using plastic cameras and figured it would marry well with tintype, since tintypes were cheap snapshots at one time. Plus there was the resistance from wet plate factions to using plastic cameras and definitely my wanting to use pinhole cameras. I was told that wouldn’t work because of the long exposures needed for pinhole and the short time you have while the plate is still wet. You have about 15 minutes from the time you remove your plate from the silver bath before it starts drying. I just can’t stand people telling me I can’t do something so I made it a priority. So I’m an itinerant wet plate collodion Holga tintypist, LOL.
SB: Can you talk a briefly about the first series (or the first image) you created using holgas and wet plate collodion?
GS: I can’t talk briefly about anything. And I’m not a linear speaker either. I’ll try. My first images with the holga were self-portraits and they were test shots. I was trying to figure out exposure times using the holga for my class so I just used myself as the subject but I had to have fun with them too. I actually was surprised that people were interested in my self-portraits. The first series I did with the holgas was pass. I felt the combination of wet plate and pinhole holga gave voice to the ruins of Pass Christian. Small, personal, surreal dreamlike images of what remains were created with this marriage of what might seem “polar opposites”.
SB: Is there one image within your toy camera/wet plate collodion work that you are most proud of or perhaps one that embodies the complete spirit and intent of your imagery?
GS: Well I’d have to say there are two. The image that I am most proud of is pool West Beach and Barkley from pass. That one image embodies pass. The pool, now a garden, which is all that remains of a house that overlooked the gulf, now tame.
Otherwise I would say absinthe of self; that was a turning point shot. I changed the way I looked at collodion. It was no longer just a medium for recording. Not just “film”. I realized it could be so much more, I could “paint” with this medium. Now I say this was a turning point but I don’t think I fully realized this potential until the calligraphy series.
SB: Has your technical or creative process with this work developed or changed over the years?
GS: Definitely. I worked on learning the technical aspects of this process and now I am breaking all the rules, which is working very well for me creatively. I am able to “paint” with the chemicals to create backgrounds that support the narrative of the new images.
SB: In your newest series, Calligraphy, you stepped away from plastic cameras and created a series of beautiful wet plate collodion tintype photogenic drawings of plant and animal specimens you found near your home and during your travels. What was your personal impetus for this body of work?
GS: Dead stuff just kept turning up all over the place. You know how you always fall into the next project while your finishing up your current project? It was that. I would walk the beach in The Pass every morning and find all these interesting things so I’d collect them. I actually had intended to use them for still life. I walk at home too everyday that I can and had collected birds and stuff; I’m a garbage picker. I had worked with photograms off and on for years and made one in France’ workshop. I had this small piece of a fish spine I had found on the beach, which reminded me of Chinese calligraphy. I kept making new images. The weather sucked so I couldn’t shoot outside so I stayed in the darkroom and made photograms and Charles my cat, was helping provide specimens. I just couldn’t see these birds and animals going to “waste”. I wanted to give them a “rebirth”. And as I worked on this process, it has been a year now and 80 images later, I had a flaw turn up that led me to the backgrounds I am creating now.
SB: Is the Calligraphy series ongoing or complete? If ongoing, do you see it changing or growing in any new directions?
GS: Calligraphy is ongoing but it has changed and is going in a new direction. I had been playing with the backgrounds and thinking of adding more negative space when my facebook wet plate friend Denis Roussel posed that question to be, “why didn’t I add more background plates?” That was when I was asking for comments on “kite”. Then I made divination and when the bough breaks which have more negative space/ background plates than positive space. I went from there to an idea I had been playing around with creating a larger narrative piece with many elements added to define the space. People often comment that I must have an interesting darkroom so I figured I’d create a piece that kinda reflected that, through my looking glass. I had a number of false starts then just started piecing it together like a quilt and then Charles brought me a mouse which I figured I better use before the flies got it and that was my tipping point. I finished the piece within a week after that working constantly. I love working this way. After, through my looking glass, I knew I wanted to make a piece about the gulf. I went down south for the opening of Mississippi Photographs at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art; a portion of pass is in the exhibit along with many amazing photographers from William Eggelston and Eudora Welty to my friends Euphus Ruth and Kathleen Robbins. I walked the beach everyday and it inspired wideness of the sea. I found the last pieces I needed to finish the piece. It is my largest piece to date nearly 3’ by 6’. I am in heaven.
I have been toying with doing all negative space pieces so a totally abstract piece, several photographers have asked me why I haven’t tried that. The reason is though I have been considering it, abstract is difficult. That will take me awhile. I have two more narratives in the works right now and then I want to start mixing the photograms with my holga self portrait work creating a different style narrative piece.
If you’re in Chicago or passing through, Gayle has a solo exhibition opening September 9, 2011 at Takohl Gallery, 110 North Peoria Street Chicago IL.
Gayle has a full line-up of exhibitions this Fall, including Mississippi Photographs 1860’s- Present, atthe Ogden museum of Southern Art in New Orleans until September 18th, Photocraft, at Lightbox Photographic Gallery Astoria OR and Plates to Pixels Gallery, Wet Plate and Mirrors: Photographers Working with Historical Processes at Jennifer Schwartz gallery in Atlanta GA October 15-November 26 and Tintype: Euphus Ruth, Jenny Sampson, S. Gayle Stevens, Bruce Shultz, at Homespace Gallery, in New Orleans, December 10, 2011-January 8 2012 (during Photonola).
To see more of Gayle’s work, pop over to her website.