The following is a conversation between Solon-based wet-plate photographer Scott Anton and my wife, Paula Kany, who has worked with Scott for years as an art model. Paula isn’t comfortable with the term “model,” and that is probably the inspiration for this entire dialogue. She has found that for many people the word “model” implies someone who plays a passive role without artistic agency. Paula wanted me to come to her shoots with two different photographers who use the collodion process — James Wigger, a studio photographer in New York as well as Scott — so I could see what was happening for myself both in terms of the wet plate process and her “modeling.” I came to see that she was a full partner in the artistry and the ultimate content of the work. That said, I think viewers ultimately see the work differently with a shifting balance between focusing on the work of the photographer and identifying with the figures in the image. In film, most Americans identity more with the actors rather than the directors or writers; and I think this effect is echoed with photography to a certain extent. Of course, presentation matters: If you go to see a show of Joyce Tenneson’s photography, for example, it’s made clear that the photographer is the artist of note. But we aren’t always (not even usually) presented with photography as authored by an artist: In our daily lives, the main ingredient of photography is what is pictured — not who is behind the camera. This is a vast and subtle subject without a singular truth; and what we find in this dialogue is that even people who work closely together have different perspectives.
Scott uses the photographic technique known as the wet plate collodion process that was invented in 1851 and came, by the end of the 1860s, to replace the daguerreotype as the standard photographic process until it was replaced by the silver gelatin process in the 1880s. The collodion process involves coating and sensitizing a glass or metal plate (using a soluble iodide and a solution of collodion — cellulose nitrate) and then exposing and developing the plate all within about a 15 minute period. This small window necessitates either working in the studio or creating a portable darkroom. (Scott, a farmer, will even use the front of his tractor as a portable darkroom.) And it makes it a labor intensive but dynamic and immediate process.
It struck me that the technical aspects of the plate preparation, exposure and developing necessarily took place in the presence of the model at the shoot. During this entire process, Paula was fully engaged with both photographers: The dialogue was continuous. This was particularly interesting to me because I play in rock bands: Dialogue is a huge part of the group creative process, but it is not possible during performance.
The following are snippets from a conversation that took place in August, 2018.
Paula: Scott and I talk about what we’re going to do before we get together, but it’s hardly set in stone. Because we work outside with natural light, we can’t always do what we’ve been planning to do. Sometimes there is a great deal of investment in the setup; and then we couldn’t do what we wanted simply because of the light.
Scott: The planning is important. Paula shows up with props and ideas; but it is the friendship that makes it so much better. I get these moods and I always have an idea of what I want to do; but every model is different and I work off the emotions of the model – their life. Models like Paula come to me because of my talent as a wet plate artist. But I like to incorporate Paula’s feelings even more than her props. That may be what she has going on that month, that week, that day or that year. Trust matters, but it has to do with being able to mix with certain people. Sometimes you don’t have a connection, and that just doesn’t work for me.
P: We don’t necessarily talk about content when working; we are far more likely to talk about life. I am friends with Scott and his wife Gemma. And this is one of the most important things about our working relationship. We’re not only comfortable with each other, we really enjoy being together.
S: I really like it when you shoot that first plate or two and the discussion kicks in. You get that image in the water (which is what brings out the image on the plate) and that is when the feedback comes and the dialogue starts for real. I like that. When you critique the work in real time, that is when you move forward. Some models don’t even look at the image in the fix. I can’t work with them.
P: Scott is more classic than some of the other wet plate photographers with whom I work. By “classic,” I mean that he has a narrative sense that fits older themes and art forms like painting or nineteenth century photography. I tend to like darker themes than he does. And sometimes he wants to do things for which I wouldn’t be the best model. What’s awesome, though, is that we always wind up in the same working space. I think we both adjust in different ways to what the other one has in mind.
S: I like the banter that goes on with the models; there is not a lot of quiet time, and that’s really important for me. There is always a lot of joking; so every moment is open for comment, so, yeah, Paula or any of my models can give input pretty naturally. I think the ideas are mostly mine, although my ideas almost never come out how I plan. But it almost always works. If it veers off on another angle, I go with it. And I think that’s the way it should be; I might want to do something but Paula is not in the mood. That would make it change direction.
P: Over time, I have gotten more and more involved. For example, I like to go into Scott’s barn and find props – I like weird things, like the bull horn cutter. I am particularly drawn to the things I don’t recognize that have wild shapes. Some of these old farm tools are scary. They’re exciting. They fascinate me and I think that comes through in the pictures.
S: I generally have an idea I want to follow. But stories need props and sometimes the story comes together when we’re talking about props and what to do with them.
P: I think that Scott approaches the content of his work through the idea of storytelling. The stories aren’t necessarily full and complete stories, but there is the sense of narrative, the idea of motivation, that something is going on. That’s important and it’s generally where we come together. Someone looking at the pictures doesn’t need to follow the story; it’s enough to know that something is going on. And I like that sense of mystery. Especially with the old format of collodion. If you sense a story, it feels like you’re getting a fragment of something lost. And I think that’s exciting. It certainly is for me.
S: My goal is to find where the emotional state of the model lines up with the story I am trying to tell. I want the picture to feel authentic. When the feelings are real, the picture looks real. Being true to the emotional state of the model is probably more important to me than the story. But when I work with Paula, it is very much about the story; I really don’t think about the viewer, I want to tell that story. Sometimes that means I have a look I want but I can’t get it with collodion. So we work around it.
P: I think Scott doesn’t really want to show me as an older model. But I am okay being seen as an older woman, mother figure, or even someone who is sad or crazy. That elicits a different response than seeing a posed beautiful woman. I didn’t start modeling until I was about 45 and part of what inspired me was the idea of seeing older women as models. Scott and I are still trying to figure that out, which I think is good; it makes him step out of his comfort zone. I like to think that makes him go new places with his work.
S: Maybe. Every model I work with is different. It matters to me how I relate to each model as well as what kind of a mood they’re in. Because of that, my work is always different.
P: I have been struggling with the term “model.” What I do is part performance, part art-directing, part acting. I don’t know if there is a better word than “model,” but I think that to a lot of people it conveys something passive. And my role in the process is anything but passive. I really enjoy being involved in the process: applying the collodion, putting the plates in the bath and so on.
S: The technical part of the process is not something I do with the models in general. That’s just you, since we’ve worked together for a few years. And with you, that’s an important part of the whole process — when we develop the work and see what we get. But, yeah, once we get a couple of pictures, that’s when things really start happening.
P: Because the wet plate process takes so long — the shot itself usually takes between 8 and 15 seconds — you have to be able to hold the pose. That’s why I don’t smile; it’s really hard to hold. And because of that, you almost never see anyone smiling in wet plate pictures, so it would look out of place if I did it. We did one recently and it looked more crazy than pretty. Also, because you have to hold the poses longer, it takes more forethought than digital. You have to get the pose right before the shot. Sometimes that means I have to hold a pose for 5 or even 10 minutes or longer while we get the setting, lighting and props all settled.
S: Sometimes you don’t like what you see in the water (the plate as it develops in the bath) and I say I am going to scrape it off, but then, after some time — an hour, a day, a week — you wind up loving it. Expectations can be limiting. Sometimes it takes time to shake them off. Digital is so predictable, but there is nothing predictable about wet plate. That’s why I like it.