Saturday, 5 May 2012

Gale Stevens and Lisa Elmaleh Practice Wet Plate Collodion on 1:1000

The online photo magazine One: One Thousand brings us two photographers for May who are masters of the wet plate collodion process and who apply it to great effect in documentating the experience of devastation, both natural and man-made.

We tend to think of photography as being about transparency, about bringing us the illusion of a clear view of reality. Alternative processes, especially the wet plate collodion process, often complicate the image we see by adding artifacts of the process itself. on the surface of the image so they come between us and the image itself.

The result can be distracting, even annoying, when not used well, because the process can seem to interfere with the process of seeing.

In the work of Gayle Stevens and Lisa Elmaleh, the subject is devastation, either the havoc created by hurricanes on the fragile coast of Mississippi or the degradation of the Everglades landscape by rapid population growth in Florida.

In both bodies of work on offer here, each image simultaneously shows us what has come to be, but also reminds us of what was, and thus what is lost. This doubleness of vision is mirrored and deepened by effects of the wet plate collodion process.

Illinois-based photographer Gayle Stevens says that she has been drawn repeatedly to photograph the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina to Pass Christian, a community of artists on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  

She notes that many of her images record the way that nature has begun to reabsorb the signs of human settlement, "like a shroud." 

Traces of the destroyed and abandoned and memories of what was here remain, for Stevens, "the essence of this place," where the loss of community is, for Stevens, "the most devastating aspect of this natural disaster."

Brooklyn-based photographer Lisa Elmaleh says that she works in the wet plate collodion process because it "renders light slowly and reveals the passing of time, a quality which is essential to my work"

She embraces the idea that the Everglades is a unique ecological system, valuable for its place as a source of Florida's abundant variety of plant and animal life, and central to the way water nurtures life and cleanses the air and the land.

Yet this vital habitat is under serious threat. Today, over half of the land originally occupied by the Everglades has been taken for agricultural use or for human habitation. The flow of water through he Everglades must be supported by pumps, channels, and floodgates.

Elmaleh's goal, in this body of work,  she says, is to"preserve an essence of the Everglades, a land we are rapidly losing without knowing the magnitude of our loss."

Elmaleh's images remind me of some of Sally Mann's work on Civil War battlefields and on the ruins of Southern plantation houses; they have the same haunting, melancholy look, a look that richly complements the sense of loss that pervades them.

Anyone who has read Faulkner's Go Down, Moses knows the abiding Southern melancholy is in part a lament for what has been lost, but it is also a grieving over the fact that the cause of that loss is all too often self-inflicted.

Good work here, work worthy of our thoughtful contemplation.

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