The Wet Plate Chronicles – Part 1: Over Saturation

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There are a great many aspects of the digital image experience that are liberating. The unrestrained flexibility – the unbridled appetite of vast onboard storage – and the simple ability to share across miles with nominal effort. But I will confess that I am fatigued. Fatigued by the very craft I loved so early in life and creative experience and expression it fostered. I suppose it is not a wholly uncommon consequence, that of a slow and all too frequent, bludgeoning from something that used to be so thoroughly enjoyed.

The first digital camera I purchased was a 1mp Fuji. In retrospect – the images were awful digitized ordeals that weren’t too far afield of taking someone’s thumbnail and expanding it to an overly enlarged proportion so as to see every grain of unnaturalness. Colors were pale. Depths were flat and I swear to god they are fading away as my laptop sits in the sunlight of the dining room.  But I was fascinated by the concept that I no longer had to concern myself with a ratcheted countdown from 36 or the pit-stop (both drop off and pick up) at the local film processing location. Pixel counts and lenses improved – new hardware followed and frankly ,  once I set down my much beloved Nikon FE2 to experiment – the transition was abrupt, unrepentant, and permanent.

Unfortunately, and despite a wide variety of rationale, I was not alone in my experimentation with this new realm of photographic hardware. As a decade + span of digital photography advances, and the amazing results that can be generated by our handy phone pieces, we have invoked the unholy *deluge*….a torrent of marginally filtered, repetitively composed, and overtly publicized images.  I realized I had crossed the threshold of tolerance when a friend of mine shared a “gallery” ( not a single image – a gallery mind you) from a recent trip to a local, somewhat touristy pond. In it swam two very elegant, chummy, and highly photogenic swans.  Rather than include 1, 2 …*maybe* 3 images of said swans in agreeable calming light – this page contained a good 20 images or more of the swans in various positions, angles and repose. Swan neck, swan feathers, swan reflections, swan currents, swan ass.  I was possessed with that odd and unpredictable claustrophobia akin to when you have to feign engagement and attention 5x past the actual invocation of your disinterest (Tammy believes I am like that in any social situation more than 30 minutes in duration). Both hobbyist and semi-pro alike have come to assume, and unfortunately promote, that *quantity* is somehow a better showcase – that inches in variation are actually something someone wishes to emotionally consume. I don’t need to see 15 “like” images anymore than I need to see 15 “like” renditions of Winslow Homer’s “Snap the Whip”. Its too much to process let alone view through an artistic lens.   For the first time I realized digital photography was the equivalent of a large (and of course dry) basement  – we have a natural tendency to fill the void with at-one-time pleasing, crap because – dammit – we have open space without rules imposed.

I felt the love draining. My camera began to miss events out of boredom or the root sensation that had taken just about every picture that I had really ever wished to take. It certainly didn’t help my growing discontent when some folks began to expect me to have my camera on the ready for various drivel and events – followed quickly by the proverbial “Can you send me the files?” slapstick routine. Technology, democratization, convenience, and the masses had evolved the craft & stretched its frame of the familiar.  To note, I am a technologist by trade, so I didn’t experience this trajectory with some weepy wax poetic of the bygone era (i.e I  just really love the delicate and profound listening experience of wax cylinders  or “Remember how great and pure we used to feel after a bloodletting?”)   – but I can say, I recognized that what was working so wonderfully for the general populace, was not working for *me*.  The voice of the muse had become nothing but prattle.

I grew up in a household that respected and admired history. Our home was not particularly old (as are so common in these parts) but it was filled with the remnants of the early New England attic and their display a common theme of our décor. With the exception of a few legendary playtime avoidance pieces of 18th century porcelain and glass – most of the artifacts could be handled and touched. In particular, my Mom dedicated one entire kitchen wall to the hanging display of antique household Americana. It had an effective level of visual balance despite its hodgepodge of disparate items and sizes and never looked like the rationalization of an over- zealous hoarder. Perched over the kitchen table hung a retro-wired brass Pullman car gas lamp. On the adjacent wall – small 19th primitive oils. There I would sit – munching away at a bowl of Life cereal before I walked off to elementary school – soaking in 200 years of the household utility.  As a child, I came to understand the textures & construct of early American wood, cast brass and iron and it is a foundation of perspective that still permeates my worldview.

Given my usual & over abundant self analysis – I began to realize that the potential creative salve lay in the merging of passion and to, most importantly,  take a very broad 150 year step backwards . To become part chemist – part artist – part tinkerer/builder – part photographer. To embrace my love of history via the do-it-yourself wonders of the first true, pioneering days of photography. To create a singular image of one – all nuance and influence –  reflective of time, optics, mixology, weather, & movement. And so began the journey.

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