An­tique el­e­gance The mam­moth cam­eras of Luther Ger­lach


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when Luther Ger­lach talks about his fa­vorite realm in pho­tog­ra­phy — the wet-plate process that dates back more than a cen­tury and a half — he con­trasts it with to­day’s dom­i­nant par­a­digm: dig­i­tal im­age­mak­ing. And it makes him think of good brews. Re­fer­ring to the rise of mi­cro­brewed ale as an al­ter­na­tive to big-in­dus­try beers, he said, “Now that we can pretty much have any­thing, the hand­crafted is so much more rel­e­vant.”

This pho­tog­ra­pher’s cho­sen tools are huge cam­eras and a gallery of an­tique brass lenses. That might bring to mind an im­age of Ansel Adams hik­ing into the Sierra Ne­vada in the 1920s and ’30s to cap­ture pris­tine wilder­ness views on his 8 x 10 view cam­era. For Ger­lach, that qualifies as a small cam­era, but his main point about that com­par­i­son has to do with what hap­pens af­ter the shut­ter is tripped: the pro­cess­ing. “Ansel Adams used store-bought tech­nol­ogy,” he said. “None of what I do is store bought; it’s all hand­made.”

Ger­lach’s land­scapes and land­scapes with nudes are part of the group ex­hi­bi­tion Past Is Present: Al­ter­na­tive Pro­cesses in Con­tem­po­rary Pho­tog­ra­phy, open­ing on Fri­day, July 8, at David Richard Gallery. And he demon­strates wet-plate pho­to­graphic pro­cesses at the gallery on the af­ter­noon of Saturday, July 9. The Ger­lach demon­stra­tion is one of many in­vig­o­rat­ing items on the 2016 ros­ter of Photo Sum­mer events or­ga­nized by the Univer­sity of New Mex­ico Art Mu­seum and 516 Arts in Al­bu­querque and CEN­TER in Santa Fe. (See www.pho­to­sum­

The in­stru­ments Ger­lach em­ploys are called “mam­moth cam­eras.” This is a tra­di­tion that harks back to Car­leton Watkins shoot­ing Yosemite Val­ley with a very large cam­era dur­ing the 1860s. Any cam­era that takes a plate or film neg­a­tive that’s more than 11 x 14 inches is called “mam­moth,” but Ger­lach’s cam­eras take the def­i­ni­tion up an­other few notches. For his Santa Fe demo, he will have the 85-pound cam­era he made in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Pa­trick Alt, a Los An­ge­les pho­tog­ra­pher, cam­era maker, and re­fin­isher of vin­tage cam­eras; it takes a 22 x 30 plate. He’s also bring­ing his Griffi­ness, a 24 x 26 cam­era that he built, in­cor­po­rat­ing a front stan­dard (the part that holds the lens) from a studio cam­era that be­longed to the le­gendary celebrity pho­tog­ra­pher Ge­orge Hur­rell. The lit­tle arms that fas­ten the stan­dard to the cam­era body came from an old piece of fur­ni­ture. This cam­era is made of sto­ries. “It is and I love it be­cause it adds spirit to the cam­era,” Ger­lach said. “You have the fact that th­ese in­cred­i­ble peo­ple sat in front of that cam­era [among them Dou­glas Fair­banks Jr., Greta Garbo, Gary Cooper, and Ca­role Lom­bard] and you can look at it as adding po­etry to the idea of the cam­era.”

Ger­lach has more than 75 large-for­mat cam­eras dat­ing from the 1930s and as far back as the 1840s. His col­lec­tion of lenses num­bers more than 150. He has about 20 lenses that fit his mam­moth-mam­moth cam­eras. Why choose one over an­other? “His­tor­i­cally, lenses from par­tic­u­lar time pe­ri­ods had cer­tain per­son­al­i­ties. They were hand ground and they’ve been bat­tered and bruised in some cases, so they’re full of char­ac­ter. Be­cause of the qual­i­ties I’m try­ing to bring out, mod­ern lenses tend to be in­cred­i­bly sharp but


frankly fairly ster­ile. So if you’re shoot­ing some­thing and you want a lot of edge ef­fect, or you’re shoot­ing a back­lit tree and you want a pic­to­rial, glowy feel, some of th­ese his­toric lenses might give you a less dy­namic range in re­gards to con­trast but a more po­etic look. It all de­pends upon the im­age. I love hav­ing lots of lenses with dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ties.”

A cen­tury or so ago, photographers had to cart their big cam­eras and lenses and glass plates and chem­i­cals on horse or burro and do their wet-col­lo­dion pro­cess­ing in tents. Ger­lach’s big dark­room bus suf­fices. “I have lots of room, in­clud­ing a sleep­ing area that’s use­ful if I’m up in the moun­tains — if it makes it up there.” He’s driv­ing that bus to Santa Fe for his demon­stra­tion day. His au­di­ence will wit­ness the mak­ing of one-of-a-kind am­brotypes (images made on glass) and tin­types (images made on me­tal) via the wet-plate col­lo­dion process. “An am­brotype is the pos­i­tive ver­sion of a neg­a­tive,” he ex­plained. “It is a neg­a­tive, tech­ni­cally, be­cause with trans­mit­ted light, it looks like a neg­a­tive, but if you put black pa­per be­hind it and look at it with re­flected light, you see a pos­i­tive im­age.” The col­lo­dion process can also be used to cre­ate neg­a­tives for mak­ing mul­ti­ple, al­bu­men-pa­per prints.

Ger­lach has con­ducted th­ese demon­stra­tions for decades. He once would travel up to 100,000 miles a year do­ing art fes­ti­vals, and in re­cent years he has given a se­ries of demos at the Getty Mu­seum in Los An­ge­les. In Septem­ber, he trav­els to the Ital­ian hill­top town of Monte Castello di Vibio to lead a work­shop in wet-plate col­lo­dion and salt print­ing. “It’s a two-week work­shop, so for peo­ple to do this is a big com­mit­ment,” he said. “The par­tic­i­pants are pri­mar­ily from the United States, many of them con­ser­va­tors and cu­ra­tors. It’s so im­por­tant for them to un­der­stand process and to walk in the same steps as photographers did at cer­tain points in his­tory, so they know ex­actly what they’re talk­ing and writ­ing about. A lot of cu­ra­tors pho­tographed in col­lege and they were in the dark­room, but do­ing wet-plate col­lo­dion, do­ing calo­types, all of th­ese hand­made pro­cesses — you can’t ex­trap­o­late one thing from the other.”

Back Into Time, 2015, tin­type

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