Text and images by Matthew Pailes
The decision to place limits on my photographic work was not made lightly, but I believe it has made all the difference in the world. The irony that I just earlier today began the process of selling a lot of my digital equipment in order to buy older analog equipment is not lost on me.
I was born in 1974. In full disclosure, I am a history teacher. I am enthralled by history. When I was a little boy I would wear a NY Yankees baseball cap. People would ask me, being from Southern California, why I was wearing such a thing. They would ask me if I was a Yankees fan. I would reply, “Yeah, the 1937 Yankees.”
Like jazz music, or the blues, the greatest product of these media (including but not limited to photography and motion pictures), according to almost all of the people who care, the more seasoned products are always the best. In many instances, older really is better. When I think of the greatest images ever made, "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941," by Ansel Adams, comes to mind. As do images by Atget, Salgado, and Sally Mann. Salgado is still creating work, as is Mann. He uses digital now, but I think his most powerful work, by far, was his work in Africa, which was all done on film. Mann is still creating work, but her process uses equipment that hails from the toddler years of the medium. Of course, this decision for her was made with earnest deliberateness.
Like music, these older processes and the images themselves seem to be more authentic. They carry an heir of authenticity that cannot be reproduced, even by the greatest digital image manipulation masters. The images I am interested in making are in the alternative process of wet plate collodion, originally created in 1851. They have a tactility, a depth, a liquidity, and even an odor (lavender oil) to them. Viewing them in person is a more encompassing experience, because “viewing” them involves more than just the sense of sight.
I am not largely caught up in fanboy hysteria, although I will admit to using Apple, Nikon, Pepsi, and Adidas (sometimes all at the same time). With my fine art photography, I genuinely do not care what brand of light tight box I use or what kind of lens I use, as long as the box leaks a little in an interesting way, and the lens has quirks from being over a century old. Powerful occurrences of here-to-fore unbeknownst pieces of happenstance are in abundance with self-imposed limitations and antiquated equipment that somehow brings the past to life, or at the very least a bit of on heir of authenticity.
To be sure, I am in the process of creating a podcast that will discuss, in depth, matters very similar to this one. As a matter of course, I will be relying heavily on several different digital platforms to make this enormous, expensive project come to fruition. Again, the irony is not lost on me, although it is becoming less and less humorous the more that I mention it.