Lindsey Ross, Tintype photographer
Lindsey Ross is an original. Most of the year you can find her in her live/work studio La Chambre Photographique in downtown Santa Barbara, CA, but she also travels constantly making work wherever she goes. She does the bulk of her work in the wet plate collodion process, an early photographic process dating back to the mid-1800s. The process requires large equipment, and that she have a portable dark room with her at all times. Her hands and clothes are always stained with silver nitrate, but her enthusiasm and energy is vibrant and infectious. Check her out on site at Babes Ride Out with Red Wing Heritage.
How did you get your start in photography?
My father introduced me to photography. We had a darkroom in our basement and he was always taking photos with his Hasselblad or Nikon and I just wanted to emulate him. When I was ten he bought me a Nikon fm and that was the beginning. He really empowered me by introducing me to photography as my own mode of self-expression.
Was there a significant moment early on in your photography where you thought, “I’m definitely going to do this for the rest of my life”?
I went to an art high school for a year where half of my day was devoted to commercial photography. I learned studio lighting and silver gelatin printing. It was such a refreshing break from the academic work I was doing. I think this is where I came to understand art - in this case photography - as a lifestyle and my primary way of relating to the world. I became comfortable with it to the point where it didn't seem extraordinary. It just became a daily routine where it felt as natural as breathing.
Who are some of your biggest influences in photography?
I have always loved Marcia Resnick - so much that I sought her out in the East Village and had lunch with her a few years ago. She was a photographer in the New York New Wave scene in the 70s and 80s and I love hearing and reading about that time and place in art history. When I was sixteen I used to look at her book Re-Visions all of the time. The photos portray a narrative of a Lolita-like character and it freed me a bit of my Midwestern repression to see photography as a place where I could safely act out.
Our house was filled with Annie Leibovitz books and records. My dad bought me a subscription to Rolling Stone when I was twelve. So it's probably safe to say I was heavily influenced by Annie Leibovitz portraits as well as album art in general.
The portrait style I'm working in now was most heavily influenced by Irving Penn. I saw his retrospective at the Getty when I was in grad school and was mesmerized by his Small Trades platinum print series of workers.
When did you get into wet-plate collodion process photography?
Tim Bradley, one of my professors at The Brooks Institute where I got my MFA, showed us a series of dry plate portraits of prisoners in a class in 2009 and I decided I wanted to learn wet plate collodion (similar aesthetic but different process). I wrote an independent study to learn wet plate collodion and by the end of the session I was apprenticing with Luther Gerlach, a master wet plate photographer. I learned from Luther for about a year before starting to shoot wet plate on my own so I owe most of my wet plate education to him.
What was it about wet plate that drew you to it?
I wanted to reconnect with photography in a tactile way. The smell, feel and pace of wet plate filled that need. It just felt right to move further into this process which was so grounded in the physical world but seemed to reference the spiritual world as well.
Is the physical nature of the process part of why you like it so much?
Definitely, the physical nature first drew me into the process. It was also the pace of wet plate collodion that captivated me. Everything in the world seems to rush us along and my mind is always moving so fast. I liked that the process had built in boundaries of time and place and that I was forced to slow down to work within those constraints.
What are some of the obstacles of the wet plate process?
The process is volatile and there are four primary solutions I work with - each which have their own limitations. The primary challenge is temperature. If the developer is too hot it is highly active and can cause fogging. If it is too cold the developer is less active and sometimes the water can freeze.
I feel like about every 6 months I discover a new issue with my chemicals that I have never seen before and must trouble shoot. So in that way I'm always learning something new about the process - even after working with it for five years.
Wet plate collodion is also equipment-intensive. The view cameras alone are huge, I need to have a darkroom on site, and I must carry tanks and trays everywhere I shoot. It takes about 1 1/2 hours to set up to shoot and if I want to move locations it takes about the same amount of time to tear down. I easily fill the long bed of a truck with the equipment when I shoot on a location.
Who or what are some of your favorite subjects to photograph?
I have always loved making portraits with wet plate collodion process. Wet plate is only sensitive to blue and ultraviolet wavelengths and my subjects have to sit very still for the portrait so that tends to determine the look of the portrait. People's skin looks so luminescent in this style of photography - that still intrigues me every time I make a portrait.
In the last year I have been shooting a lot of landscapes - particularly mining ruins I've found around Telluride and Death Valley. I love the way those ruins look in wet plate - the wood and metal shine in a way that is different than what you see in real life. I have always felt that regardless of subject matter wet plate renders the subject mortal and vulnerable so I suppose I love shooting tough, strong subjects for that juxtaposition.
Besides other photographers and artists what sort of things inspire you and your work?
I love live music and I love to dance. I feel like both of these things give me a bit of release that helps fuel and inspire my work. Spending time in nature is also important to my work, especially when it allows me to disconnect completely from all digital communication.
If you weren't a photographer what do you think you'd be doing?
I think I would like to be a metal worker. My friends who are blacksmiths or welders can make anything - I have always admired that. But honestly I cannot imagine trading my medium for anything else.
Do you feel like you are a process or results oriented person?
I am definitely a process oriented person. While I am a little more obsessed with perfecting results than when I first started shooting wet plate, I am so grateful to work in a medium that is so process intensive. Contemporary photography can be so cerebral and the process helps keep me grounded… and sane.