James River Ambrotypes (2012)

These photographs describe the James River in Virginia at the 40th anniversary of the 1972 Clean Water Act. They also attempt to explore the paradoxical nature of rivers as particular places constantly changed and formed by time. My interest in rivers comes from how they embody the ever-shifting nature of our own attachments to place and to one another.

To paraphrase the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus, “One can never step into the same river twice.” Despite the many gains made since the Clean Water Act, America’s urban, industrial rivers will most likely always remain compromised affairs reflecting the dynamic nature of human and natural demands. But this doesn’t mean that they don’t matter or that they cannot recover differently. For Heraclitus, the river became a powerful metaphor shaping his larger philosophy of panta rhei, or “everything flows,” yet he didn’t deny permanence. Just as much as the waters flowing over your feet are ever changing, something of the river remains. Flux and persistence can and do coexist.

For me, photography is the vehicle to explore the paradox that Heraclitus outlined two and half millennia ago: change, a central component of our daily lives, coexists with our ability to discern patterns in all that is swirling around us. To see and remember what persists in the current of time enables us to form attachments with other people, places, and things surrounding us in this life.

The invention of the wet-plate photographic process in 1850 marks an era when the industrialization and degradation of the river was kicking into high gear. And, of course, the invention of photography itself just 11 years earlier was a result of the period’s industrialization and technological advances. By using a nineteenth-century process to make photographs today, I attempt to engage the viewer in a consideration of the photograph’s slippery status as record of fact and stimulant of the imagined. The photographs’ tonalities and inherent flaws, along with the strange effect of viewing the photograph, called an ambrotype, on a plate of glass, suggest an experience of seeing that hearkens back to the 1850s, before cell phones, automobiles, and the Internet, when the places we occupied looked very different than they do today.

The process of making an ambrotype begins by pouring the collodion solution, whose consistency and color resembles maple syrup, onto a plate of 8” x 10” glass. I then dip this wet, thinly coated plate into a silver bath to sensitize it to light, run to expose the plate in the camera and quickly return to my dark box to pour developer over the still-wet plate before I fix its image permanently onto the glass in another chemical bath. All of this occurs on site at the river’s edge. Each step must be performed immediately in sequence without fail, giving me a finished photograph within 15 minutes. The results are handmade photographs, which for us these days is a bit of an oxymoron. The conventional photograph for much of photography’s history is largely a product of standardized industrial and mechanical processes playing unseen in the background. As Kodak proclaimed back in its heyday, “You push the button and we do the rest.”

Running counter to George Eastman’s desire to minimize the handmade qualities of the photograph and thereby remove the messy inconsistencies of life from the production of the image for the consumer, the wet-plate process attracted me despite, or perhaps due to, how cumbersome, laborious, and particular it is. Initially I justified its use by how distinctive and seemingly magical the results can be. I was excited by how the process complemented my choice of subject both literally and conceptually. The physical correspondence is direct: water and “wetness” are the key elements to both. And the historic arcs of chemical photographic processes and our rivers’ industrial alteration seem to mirror one another. In similar ways the photographic plate and the river convey flow and instability, while simultaneously they reference a longstanding relationship between the irrevocably altered nature of the places we live in and our ability to make photographs of them.

These resulting ambrotypes, with all their flaws, also intrigue me for how they present a contradictory vision of the world, simultaneously contemporary but seemingly from some other time and place. They describe the river as it looks and acts today in shockingly rich detail, yet, because the plates are only sensitive to very limited wavelengths of visible light, most colors in the world are rendered in the images with a narrow range of tones. To me they cut between a rich, yet limited, range of information, much like a memory or a dream. I love how they suggest simultaneously the immediacy of flowing perceptual experience, of the here and now, while also conjuring up a period of time and a place we can only imagine.

Like the river they depict, the photographs are objects of interest both lost and found.

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