“There is more to life than simply increasing its speed.” – Mahatma Gandhi
Slow Time: Exposure and Revelation
We live in an age increasingly dominated by fantasies of speed, convenience, effortless simplicity, endless access. Photography is a prime example of how technological change has altered tools, creative practices, audiences, and attitudes. The photographic apparatus has become incrementally smaller and simpler. Cameras have evolved from cumbersome magic crates on tripods, to smaller boxes that could be hand-held but were still bristling with buttons and dials, and now very recently to wafer-like smart phones that require no knowledge of the actual physics and mechanics of capturing and inscribing light. Likewise, the intricacies of film, paper, and chemistry that formed the basis of making and distributing pictures in the past has given way to electronic social networks where ephemeral images flicker and proliferate across the screens that mark the habitat of our waking worlds. We can now carry our cameras, darkrooms, and publishing platforms neatly tucked in a back pocket. Vision, creation, and publication – potentially to millions, across the planet – involves merely clicking a button or two, and can occur with a velocity that is nearly instantaneous.
It is notable, then, that Mélanie-Jane Frey has decided to refuse all these new technological affordances in favor of an historical image-making technique from the 19th Century.
“The body is a place where our mind resides, and that’s what I’m photographing. I wasn’t interested in just photographing someone naked, I was interested in representing them as clothed in their own skin, secure in themselves.” – Mona Kuhn
The collodion wet plate process was developed around 1850 and for the next thirty years became the most popular method for producing photographs. It involved an intricate, tempermental, time-consuming, and toxic method of coating a glass plate with a liquid light-sensitive emulsion and then exposing the plate in a camera before it dried. The exposed plate was then developed and fixed in chemical baths, producing a negative which cold be contact printed. In the 19th century this often necessitated that a portable wagon/darkroom be stationed literally next to an 8 x 10 camera on a tripod.
The obvious question, of course, is why would a contemporary photographer deliberately abandon the speed, ease, and technical superiority of modern tools in favor of an archaic and outmoded historical process? The answer to this question lies in Frey’s chosen genre – portraiture – and both the aesthetic and conceptual sensibilities that inform her artistic vocabulary.
“The naked figures in the landscape have willingly undressed for my camera. They are either perfect beings heroically occupying their Edens, or else they are gardeners after the Fall, lost and exposed to both the elements and the lens.” – Justine Kurland
There is a warmth, graciousness, and generosity to these exposures (the double-meaning here is intended: the exposure of the negative and the subject). During the several seconds of exposure time required for the collodion emulsion, these subjects also seem to be exposing themselves before the camera with unusual openess and candor. And these people, they’re beautiful, which is not the same as saying they are perfect. Their beauty resides not in perfection or pose (as in pop culture voguing), but rather through their unselfconscious presentation of self, as in true self: unaltered, unedited, with all imperfections on full display. Time leaves its mark on our bodies, and Frey’s collodian negatives take this as their subject, surveying and recording the topography of this human landscape. It is a celebration of embodiment that embraces imperfection as a form of authenticity, and lovingly chronicles the trajectory of age and useage as they become written on the body.
Frey’s use of collodion is a brilliant fusion of form and content. Like the bodies presented, the collodion emulsion is also irregular, distressed, imperfect. Tactile. Visceral. And Frey sometimes accentuates this even further by adding her own hand-made marks and scratches, as if to underline her disdain for the aesthetics of perfection.
And an interesting inadvertant (or not?) consequence of those images where the sitter’s face has been scratched or blurred is that it allows us to put ourselves in the frame. This erasure of specific identity serves as an invitation to imagine, with our own bodies, what unguarded visibility might feel like.
“To share your weakness is to make yourself vulnerable; to make yourself vulnerable is to show your strength.” – Criss Jami
This work is about flesh, but not sex. Frey’s subjects are naked, but not nude. The British art and cultural critic John Berger described the nude as a social convention, and argued that to be naked was to be oneself, whereas to be nude was to become an object.
To be nude is to conform – or at least attempt to conform – to a social construct that has nothing to do with our individuality. For most of us, nudity requires that we camoflauge our real selves, our real bodies. Nudity is, more than anything, a ritual of concealment. In comparision, to be naked is to simply be oneself: unselfconscious, unposed, unaltered. Uncovered. Nakedness is, or can be, an act of revelation.
“Many displayed in their nakedness traces of their past” – Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera
This distinction seems essential to Frey. Her subjects are utterly vulnerable and exposed, yet not objectified or eroticized. They have opened themselves up for observation, offering us the gift of being visible and available in the most intimate of ways; gifting us the opportunity to gaze from a place reserved most commonly only for a lover, or at the very least, only the closest of family.
What is startling about Frey’s portraits is this sense of revelation. Its as if the technical requirements of the collodion – the slow time of the photographic exposure and process – invites and elicits a complimentary ability of the subjects to reveal themselves to the camera through a vocabulary of the body that is intimate and primal. There is something alchemical about Frey’s slow time that reveals the sitter’s soul by way of flesh and body. As such, her work speaks with a gentle directness and simplicity that feels like an antidote to our age of perfection and speed.
images: © copyright 2016 Mélanie-Jane Frey. No use without permission.
words: © copyright 2016 Joseph Squier. No use without permission.