Photographer Cole Caswell’s wet-plate collodion series Rise creates temporal dislocations, fusing the 19th-century past (evoked by wet-plate collodion) with meditative awareness of 21st-century rising sea levels. Eustacy, the swelling ocean, haunts Caswell’s mournful landscapes, as the series aims to honor places that will disappear or be profoundly altered by sea-level rise. Caswell wants viewers of the images to “consider the places that we know so well changed so drastically we wouldn’t be able to recognize or even inhabit them.” The photographs in Rise, he says, are “memorials to side places that are going to be changed.” He emphasizes the periphery, photographing places that exist at the edges of what we see in our daily inhabitation of this land now called Maine. The images look at once apocalyptic—reaching forward in predictive time to the future of Maine’s coast when low-lying areas will sink beneath water—and also elegiac, remembering the past through the technology of wet plate. In effect, the photographs are elegies of now.
The processual aspect of his work is paramount. When I asked Caswell how real and imagined landscapes, inner and outer worlds, meet in his work, he pointed to process. “The process is the interior space: going through a multi-step process while I’m listening to the birds, and the wind, and the traffic.” The mental space of what the photographer knows includes where the selected landscape photograph is situated with regards to the rest of the land, so that mapping is part of the imaginative mnemonic act that the photographs, as exterior signs, mark. Caswell’s visions of environmental crisis and the potentials and limitations of photographic witnessing entwine: “The process of wet-plate collodion is very slow [so while working I think about] what’s going on around me in terms of industry and where the housing developments are.” In a meditative processual way, he brings this cumulative environment to the creation of the images.
The wet-plate process directly impacts the aesthetic of the series, as weather creates the photograph. Caswell notes that: “Oftentimes I’m purposefully trying to be messy to see what chance can bring to the picture . . . you’re working in conditions that aren’t the nicest, so maybe it’s cold outside and [you] don’t want to spend the time with cold fingers to do a clean job.” Atmospheric conditions impacting the emulsion create the picture in collaboration with the photographer. By using a wet plate, Caswell avoids asserting photography as a dominant technological vision tool that contains the land. Instead, his process allows weather to physically effect (as in produce) the picture.
Caswell links collodion’s fluidity (when the image is still in process) with the fluidity of natural conditions: “What’s happening in the place around me is affecting what I do on the plate itself.” This isn’t just a metaphorical linkage but a real one, as wind will push the collodion across the glass plate, and Caswell preserves this inscription of wind as part of the finished image. “The process is a way of engaging with the environment in a fuller way; because . . . things happen to the photographs . . . I’m not trying to force a vision on the landscape. I’m trying to figure out what’s happening in the environment around me and get some kind of beautiful object out of that, or contemplative object.”
In Caswell’s Rise series, the interior/exterior division is not the human mind as “interior” and the natural world as “exterior”; instead, the conditions that create the external visible image are those of the photographer’s mind and also materially, the surrounding land and sky. Caswell’s process grants interiority and a kind of mind to the natural world. As he describes it: “Part of that is me being in the place and wandering around, using natural conditions in a cumulative way instead of trying to push them out of the way to make a perfect photograph.”
The wet-plate process, significantly slower than contemporary photographic processes, makes a meditative act of the images’ creation. These are photographs that inscribe the pace of thought. Caswell notes: “I’m thinking about marks a lot these days. Considering tempo, how things might flow and fit together . . . I try to understand the environment of a place instead of trying to claim the place because I’m a person and can say ‘Oh, yeah, there’s a landscape.’”
With wet-plate technology, Caswell revisits a tradition that haunts the photographically enmeshed 21st century, re-encountering visual-technological roots in this series that envision a desolate future. The harshness of the images’ beauty bridges polarities of past and future, pleasure and mourning, contemplation and fear. He refers to prospective viewers as “readers,” which strikes me as illuminative of his approach to the work. Through this slow process, we are called to read: read the land, read the photographic image, read the time in which we are living. He wants the “state of mind of the reader of the photograph [to be] like an open-ended question.”
Between history, personal memory, and daydreams of the future, Caswell positions these enigmatic images so that the photographs evoke “a memory . . . of being on the coast, by the ocean, that has that particular sound” while instantiating a simultaneous foreboding sense of the daydream of the future. For “the future is a totally made-up daydream of sorts . . . which is what I think about when I look at the pictures.” Caswell’s dog, Dia, goes with him on shoots. Her steady presence informs the images. Fidelity and patience define Rise. This is where we are, the photographs say; this is where we are going, like it or not.
Image at top: Cole Caswell, Spurwink River Looking West, Plate 036, pigment print from glass plate negative, 8 x 10 in., 2021 (courtesy of The Maine Museum of Photographic Arts).