The Mammoth Cameras of Luther Gerlach
Santa Fe New Mexican
When Luther Gerlach talks about his favorite realm in ·photography -the wet-plate process that dates back more than a century and a half - he contrasts it with today's dominant paradigm: digital imagemaking. And it makes him think of good brews. Referring to the rise of microbrewed ale as an alternative to big-industry beers, he said, "Now that we can pretty much have anything, the handcrafted is so much more relevant."
This photographer's chosen tools are huge cameras and a gallery of antique brass lenses. That might bring to mind an image of Ansel Adams hiking into the Sierra Nevada in the 1920s and '30s to capture pristine wilderness views on his & x 10 view camera: For Gerlach, that qualifies as a small camera, but his main point about that comparison has to do with what happens after the shutter is tripped: the processing. "Ansel Adams used store-bought technology," he said. "None of what I do is store bought; it's all handmade."
Gerlach's landscapes and landscapes with nudes are part of the group exhibition Past Is Present: Alternative Processes in Contemporary Photography, opening on Friday, July 8, at David Richard Gallery. And he demonstrates wet-plate photographic processes at the gallery on the afternoon of Saturday, July 9. The Gerlach demonstration is one of many invigorating items on the 2016 roster of Photo Summer events organized by the University of New Mexico Art Museum and 516 Arts in Albuquerque and CENTER in Santa Fe. (See www.photosummer.org.)
The instruments Gerlach employs are called "mammoth cameras." This is a tradition that harks back to Carleton Watkins shooting Yosemite Valley with a very large camera during the 1860s. Any camera that takes a plate or film negative that's more than 11 x 14 inches is called "mammoth," but Gerlach's cameras take .the definition up another few notches. For his Santa Fe demo, he will have the 85-pound camera he made in collaboration with Patrick Alt, a Los Angeles photographer, camera maker, and refinisher of vintage cameras; it takes a 22 x 30 plate. He's also bringing his Griffiness, a 24 x 26 camera that he built, incorporating a front standard (the part thatholds the lens) from a studio camera that belonged to the legendary celebrity photographer George Hurrell. The little arms that fasten the standard to the camera body came from an old piece off furniture. This camera is made of stories. "It is and I love it because it adds spirit to the camera," Gerlach said. "You have the fact that these incredible people sat in front of that camera [among them Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Greta Garbo, Gary Cooper, and Carole Lombard] and you can look at it as adding poetry to the idea of the camera."
Gerlach has more than 75 large- format cameras dating from the 1930s and as far back as the 1840s. His collection of lenses numbers more than 150. He has about 20 lenses that fit his mammoth-mammoth cameras. Why choose one over another? "Historically, lenses from particular time periods had certain personalities. They were hand ground and they've been battered and bruised in some cases, so they're full of character. Because of the qualities I'm trying to bring out, modern lenses tend to be incredibly sharp but frankly fairly sterile. So if you're shooting something and you want a lot of edge effect, or you're shooting a backlit tree and you want a pictorial, glowy feel, some of these historic lenses might give you a less dynamic range in regards to contrast but a more poetic look. It all-depends upon the image. I love having lots of lenses with different personalities."
A century or so ago, photographers had to cart their big cameras and lenses and glass plates and chemicals on horse or burro and do their wet-collodion processing in tents. Gerlach's big darkroom bus suffices. "I have lots of room, including a sleeping area that's useful if I'm up in the mountains -if it makes it up there." He's driving that bus to Santa Fe for his demonstration day. His audience will witness the making of one-of-a-kind ambrotypes (images made on glass) and tintypes (images made on metal) via the wet-plate collodion process. "An ambrotype is the positive version of a negative," he explained. "It is a negative, technically, because with transmitted light, it looks like a negative, but if you put black paper behind it and look at it with reflected light, you see a positive image.” The collodion process can also be used to create negatives for making multiple, albumen-paper prints.
Gerlach has conducted these demonstrations for decades. He once would travel up to 100,000 miles a year doing art festivals,· and in recent years he has given a series of demos at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. In September, he travels to the Italian hilltop town of Monte Castello di Vibio to lead a workshop in wet-plate collodion and salt printing. "It's a two-week workshop, so for people to do this is a big commitment," he said. "The participants are primarily from the United States, many of them conservators and curators. It's so important for them to understand process and to walk in the same steps as photographers did at certain points in history, so they know exactly what they're talking and writing about. A lot of curators photographed in college and they were in the darkroom, but doing wet-plate collodion, doing calotypes, all of these handmade processes -you can't extrapolate one thing from the other."