Digital Dalliance

I imagine Luther sometimes comes off as being anti-digital. In reality, nearly every day he is taking iPhone shots. So far, none of these images have been presented as a finished Work of Art, but he’s definitely exercising his artistic muscle when he’s taking them. “Unlike shooting with film,” Luther told me, “digital offers the photographer immediacy. I think this is what makes it such a great learning tool, because there’s a sense of play, and you can experiment with positive and negative space, line, and composition with practically no restrictions.”

Last week Luther was leading a private wet plate workshop with our newest dear friend, Kyle Roberts. The wet plate process is actually fairly immediate in that the image appears on the plate just moments after the shot is taken. But consider that cumbersome 12x20” set up they’re working with, and the fact that the final image is black and white, not to mention that the process is most sensitive to blue and ultraviolet light. For instance, bright lemon-yellow appearing on your final image as pitch black - that takes some getting used to. 

In the case of the flounder, Luther even drew on his background in biology to get the shots he wanted. A flatfish, the flounder’s top side is dark brown, designed to absorb uv light and help it blend in with the ocean floor, and white on its bottom side, designed to reflect uv light and blend in with the ocean ceiling. So, as you can see below, the first tintype of the flounder shows its absorbent top side, and the second shows its reflective bottom side. The exposure for the first shot was almost twice as long as the exposure for the second shot. In Kyle’s octopus tintype there was no such tricksy uv play, but you can see the red shows up as black.

Wet plate may be immediate, but unlike digital, it absolutely requires that the photographer pre-visualize each shot. One way to master the compositional skills necessary to do this is to practice with your digital camera. After several days hard at work, Luther and Kyle took a break from their workshop, and we all headed down to the Getty Center to look at other peoples’ art (and get a fantastic behind the scenes tour from Art Kaplan, Research Lab Associate at the Getty Conservation Institute). The Santa Clarita Sand Fire was burning strong, and when we emerged from one of the exhibits, we saw some surreal skies. Luther and Kyle (and every other person present) whipped out their trusty iPhones, and had some fun with space, line, and composition. Oh, and color - check out that hot pink sun!

Above are some of Luther’s snaps. And below is my favorite shot of the day by Kyle.

Theses are all unedited, uncropped shots taken as we were walking toward the exit. Practice makes perfect, I guess.

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