We’re pleased to have France Scully Osterman joining us at the 2015 F295 Symposium to teach one of our fabulous hands-on workshops! We’re excited to work to offer her terrific weekend tintype portrait workshop. If you want to learn the process you can find no better instructor. We recently had the chance to speak with her more about the process and the elements that make it so unique.
F295: How did you come to the wet plate collodion process?
France Scully Osterman: From an early age, I wanted to be an artist. No doubt I was influenced by my father, a painter and photographer (and one of those Madmen who worked for NYC advertising agencies). My dad taught me to use a 35 mm camera when I was a kid. After high school, photography became my artistic medium.
My husband, Mark (Osterman) became interested in historic processes while at Kansas City Art Institute in the late 70s. He began researching and working with collodion in the late 80s while teaching photography full time. In 1990, he began teaching me to develop film and print B&W photographs. This helped launch me into photojournalism for the rest of that decade. At the same time, under Mark’s direction, I also made the leap from 35 mm and 2 1/4” silver gelatin film to large format wet-plate collodion.
F295: How has your work evolved since you started working with the process?
FSO: It took me at least a few years to gain control of the process. Even after almost 25 years it can prove to be a challenge at times, especially when we travel to other countries. Finding the right body of work to marry with a particular process, that takes time, too.
I was always drawn to portraiture, but not for commercial work. I began to make negatives as well as ambrotype portraits. Important to all my work, whether landscapes or portraits, was the effect of the portrait lens used mostly or wide open. This better reflects the way we naturally see –or at least the way I do. Humans focus on one thing at a time, a face for example, while the background remains out of focus. This use of depth of field was unlike a lot of work our contemporaries were doing and I felt it lent a more contemplative feel to the imagery.
Raised Catholic, I was always drawn to iconography, particularly the panel paintings I visited in museums. Many have a flat primitive aesthetic, and I thought photography was a perfect medium for this sort of presentation. The saint is laden with iconic motifs symbolic of their story, often with a background landscape. In the late 1990’s, I began making a series of icons using the collodion process. Some were layered ambrotypes and triptychs, others were on mica, nailed to wood panels.
Afterwards, I began the Sleep series. Essentially it’s a portrait series. In some ways I think it provided the best possible setting – long exposures of subjects who were not influenced by my presence.
F295: What influenced the style in which you create your wet plate images?
FSO: From the beginning, I have always thought that collodion was like a hybrid of painting and photography. I came into the process focusing on what I wanted to do with it, not what anyone had done before (which was 19th century work). Like many artists, I was drawn to some of the imperfections resulting from hand-coating a plate. This combined with the effect of the portrait lens can contribute to the “painterliness” of the image.
Mark and I had our first exhibit in the early 1990’s. We were the first to use this medium in contemporary times as artists, so the only other influences in that regard were 19th century and we both wanted to use the medium to express a contemporary point of view. What we found amusing was that some people were actually upset when we exhibited landscapes which were silver gelatin enlargements from collodion negatives. “They never did that…” was the reaction of those who initially didn’t get what we were doing. Of course, for us that was a good reason to do it. Important to note is that an image created using the wet plate collodion process is very fine and almost grainless. So, it’s a great marriage of processes.
F295: Can you tell us about the creative possibilities of the medium?
FSO: It seems most people emphasize the “serendipity” of the process, almost as if to shout, “I made this!” Some of the markings can certainly contribute to the image. But ultimately, for me it is not just about the artifact. I think a little can go a long way and if that is the only thing the viewer notices, the artist has failed. The process should provide support for the image, while not detracting from the message the artist is trying to convey.
When one becomes facile with the process, there are many other factors which contribute to the image-making process. For example, I like the way colors are translated with collodion. It’s a blue/UV sensitive film, so warm (reddish) colors tend to go dark. All of these characteristics add dimension to the image. Like any artistic venture, it begins with what you envision. In my Sleep series, the long exposures and necessarily contemplative nature of the process marries perfectly with the imagery. In addition, everything about the negatives and prints is visual. From making the negative and the print from scratch to finishing the print with a coating of beeswax and oil of lavender. Every part of the experience and process is visual and thoughtful, requiring a commitment of time. Making them is a sensual experience and I like to think that shows in the results.
And there are so many possibilities with collodion. Positives on glass, metal plates, mica,… and one can make negatives for any type of printing process.
F295: In regards to your own work, in particular your Sleep series, do you find the medium causes viewers to associate images with certain concepts or ideas?
FSO: Yes, I find a lot of people associate my sleepers with post-mortems. Naturally I understand the comparison but I never intended that. My work was about capturing the perfect portrait without influencing my subject. And to me, a photograph of a sleeper is very different from a deceased subject. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen lots of both.
I had an interesting experience showing my work to a group of artists. This is a group spans a broad range of media, and from beginners and hobbyists to professionals. When they looked at my work, I was surprised to hear nervous giggling. For some, looking at photographs of people sleeping seemed voyeuristic and made them feel uncomfortable. Some were uneasy looking at one sleeper, for others it was couples. For me, this was great feedback, as the Sleep series is also a work about intimacy.
F295: What can one take away from the workshop?
FSO: Tintype portraits are a fun way to explore the collodion process whether one plans to continue making positives or move on to negative making. Many people are enticed by the artifacts they can achieve with collodion, and this is understandable. But the process should not actually be a mystery to those using it.
Whether one chooses to avoid a particular artifact or make it happen is a matter of personal aesthetics. But I encourage those using the process to gain control over it. So, throughout the class we will discuss cause and effect.
The choice of subject matter will also be discussed. For portraits, the color of the background and clothing can have a direct affect on the way skin tones photograph.
And of course, there’s lighting. I’m eager to see more artists who are using the process consider how subtle changes in lighting can have an impact on their work. There are a lot of images out there which I think could be improved dramatically with a little more attention to light and shadow. Light is just another tool, of course, but arguably, the most important one. After all, photography is all about drawing with light.