Photographer Alex Sapienza has turned his back on the digital age by using a 150-year-old technique
You have to rinse the plate completely, otherwise the acid would mix with the cyanide and release cyanide gas and that would kill us both,” warns Alex Sapienza as we squeeze into the bathroom that doubles as a darkroom in his studio on Dublin’s South William Street. At the bottom of a plastic tray, on a sheet of inky black glass, a negative image slowly appears. We’re not at the cyanide stage yet, but I hold my breath anyway. Who knew that getting your photograph taken could be lethal?
An Italian who has lived in Ireland since 1996, Sapienza is a documentary and television cameraman. His love of the moving image has long been matched by a fascination for those that are still. “I was always involved with photography, in the last 10 years mostly digital photography,” he says. Sapienza honed his skills the traditional way, in a darkroom at film school in Rome.
Lately, he had begun to feel digital photography had lost its edge. He watched his 10-year-old daughter playing with Instagram, an online photo-sharing application. “I could see that once she applies a couple of filters to the images, they’re as good as mine,” he says. So he decided to take a step backwards to a technique called wet-plate collodion, which was invented in England in 1851. He established the Analogue Studio, a commercial photographic studio that offers one-off portraits on plates of glass, as a kind of antidote to the throwaway, everyday commodity digital photography has become.
“Every picture now seems to be so predictable, everything seems to be the same,” he says. “The level of photography has definitely increased, but then it has sort of flattened out. To me, there aren’t many striking images any more. The technical end of it has got better, but to find a picture that really stands out now is more difficult.”
Sapienza enjoys modern photojournalism but finds contemporary fashion photography, in particular, “safe” and “bland”. “With digital you can take 20 snaps in five seconds and I can guarantee you even a non-photographer with the help of Photoshop can come out with a really good picture. To me that takes away from photography — that aspect of uncertainty that gave me the attraction to photography in the first place.”
Six doors down from the studio, in Bagots Hutton basement wine bar, his first show is hanging. It includes images of Jennifer Maguire of RTE’s The Republic of Telly and The Fear, arts broadcaster John Kelly and musician Gavin Friday, but most are friends or other unknown faces. Each image is paired with a quote.
The beautiful Virginia M offers risqué advice: “If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.” Maguire’s just says “Bold”.
“I asked everybody to give me a quote,” says Sapienza. That they are all dark, edgy phrases is no surprise. There are no cheesy grins here. Without exception, the portraits reveal an uncompromising “other” side to their subject. “You get to see people’s faces in a way you don’t see in digital photography, almost that you don’t see in real life. There’s that kind of aura,” says Sapienza. He points out that some of his sitters’ friends haven’t recognised them in portraits.
The darkness comes from the raw material: a plate of black glass. The grittiness is due to the antique equipment and the volatile nature of the chemicals, the balance of which begins to shift as soon as he opens a new batch. The unfaltering stares are the result of having to keep absolutely still for up to four seconds in order to allow enough light into the camera to produce an image. These portraits are eerie, ethereal, old-fashioned and timeless. In an age of digital perfection and ubiquitous retouching,
the process is compellingly unpredictable and frequently unforgiving. It can produce an alabaster-skinned beauty such as Maguire’s image, or it can amplify blemishes and wrinkles to give the subject an air of ancient wisdom. One of Sapienza’s favourites is of a red-haired woman, her face so freckled it appears mottled.
“If people come here expecting a clean, perfect picture, it’s not going to happen,” he says. “It’s totally inconsistent and there’s kind of a surprise element that’s actually the best part. I get a buzz out of it. I get an adrenaline rush when I walk into the darkroom and put the developer on and see the negative image coming up and I’m not sure if it’s going to be absolutely sharp.”
Worldwide, wet plate has re-emerged mostly as a photographers’ hobby, but there are new professionals too. Sapienza shows me an online video of Ian Ruhter at work. This LA-based photographer makes enormous images using a truck he transformed into a giant, portable wet-plate camera. At one point Ruhter flings a huge aluminium plate into the wilderness in anger. It didn’t turn out right.
This element of risk is what attracts contemporary photographers bored by the predictability of digital technology. “It’s also the handmade, craft element that in digital photography doesn’t exist any more,” says Sapienza. He says some photographers are adapting old lenses to use with digital cameras in order to produce the kind of vignetting effect that makes the image pin-sharp only at the centre. Others are adding the effect digitally afterwards but, in the face of what goes on at the Analogue Studio, that seems like cheating.
His main piece of equipment is a century-old, wooden camera which he bought in the mid-1990s. He pairs this Victorian device with a 150-year-old lens from a New York antique shop to produce the largest 10in by 12in portraits. The lens is responsible for many of the unique qualities of the finished image. “It’s not as sharp as modern lenses and you’ve got a lot of aberrations on the edges. The actual lens itself is not pure,” says Sapienza. It also has a short depth of field, which means when the subject’s eyes are in focus, the tip of their nose, ears, neck and shoulders are not. He has a Rolleicord, a Hasselblad and Russian cameras which can produce smaller portraits for which he charges €70.
The technique is not particularly portable; each image must be developed within 10 minutes, while the plate is still wet. The method is slow; one portrait takes 30 minutes. Wet plate also requires some understanding of chemistry, and access to the chemicals. One section of the studio looks like a science lab. “If it was that easy, everybody would do it,” Sapienza points out.
Potassium cyanide, which is the fixing agent, is not even the most dangerous chemical in the process. “That would be silver nitrate, the main element. It’s so corrosive that if a drop goes into your eyes you’ll go blind. Sulphuric acid and acetic acid would pierce your skin. Cadmium bromide is really cancerous.”
It sounds high-risk, but the revival in wet-plate photography is actually tied more to the idea of slowing things down, the concept of less is more. Because it is not possible to alter the image afterwards, it also challenges contemporary notions of photographic beauty and perfection. These antique cameras capture more than a split second — it’s a series of seconds, condensed into a single image.
It seems to have links with the sentiment behind other back-to-basics campaigns, such as the slow-food movement. “There is a bit of that,” Sapienza agrees. “Again, it’s about disposable stuff. It’s like I’ve reached a limit of how much stuff I can throw away. I’d like to hold on to something.
“You go home with just one image, but it’s a special image. It’s not disposable. It’s guaranteed 200 years once it’s varnished. It’s something to pass on. It’s an object, not something intangible like a digital picture.”
The words “capture” and “immortalise” seem to apply more to this type of photography than they do to a split-second snap. Still, analogue must live side by side with digital. Sapienza’s brother Francesco is a professional photographer in New York and he visited the studio earlier this month to have his portrait taken. Within seconds of his image materialising in the tray, Francesco had Instagrammed his wet-plate portrait, and linked to the image online. He looks like Bruce Willis: shaved head, aviator sunglasses and a scarf wrapped loosely around his neck. It’s the modern way to let everyone know you’ve just had your portrait taken. But timeline updates soon become yesterday’s image, disappearing into the mammoth digital legacy we all add to daily. An image on a plate of glass, however, is something else.