As a writer for Fstoppers I hear about a lot of personal projects. This past weekend, my attention was grabbed when I read about how Denver-based photographer Dylan Burr undertook a project to create wet plate collodion photographs. It wasn't his image making process that stood out to me though- it was his subject matter. Read on to see the images Dylan created, but also hear how he is hoping to impact the community through his efforts.
Dylan is full time photographer by day– often shooting weddings and portrait sessions out the Rocky Mountain State. Like many other creatives, when work is slow, he fills his time by undertaking personal projects. What started as a simple idea blossomed into something much larger.
While chatting with his cousin, who happened to be a deacon at a nearby church, they found themselves on the topic of those who are less fortunate. They both agreed that their expressions are very powerful when rendered in an image. Dylan had recently begun shooting tintype portraits, and realized that with the unique look of those type of images combined with the expressions of the homeless, the result could be quite dramatic. But how could he do wet plate photography in the streets?
The technical aspects of doing wet plate on the street in winter seemed almost impossible, but I couldn’t let the idea go. I sat down with my assistant and we brainstormed how to make it possible and then it developed into doing a film and a book. Working with The St. Francis Center was key. They allowed me to use an office at the day shelter and then it was up to me to find people who would be interested.
Dylan considered running an online fundraiser ahead of time, but ultimately decided to wait until the project was done to do any sort of fundraising.
I was too excited to start and figured it would be stronger actually having the work to show and share. You don’t need to worry if I’m not a flaky artist or that I may or may not actually get the job done. It’s ready to go.
Dylan ended up creating an IndieGogo campaign to support this project, after the fact, with sales of the film and books going to the St. Francis Center (the day shelter that helped everyone featured in this project.) Apart from this online fundraiser, he planned to auction off the original wet plate prints, with the proceeds going to the people in the photographs. This is a unique approach as the work is already done, so you know exactly what you are supporting.
So back to Dylan's story... With a goal in mind and work to be done, Dylan put his feet on the pavement and set out to find people to photograph. He was surprised at how difficult this actually was, and by how many homeless had been approached by photographers before.
I have come to find out that MANY MANY photographers and writers are always coming around to take pictures of them or get their take on the homeless. Very rarely is it every about that specific person. Its always about the group or the “condition” of homeless.
Terri, one of the African American women I photographed mentioned that a week prior someone asked to take her photograph and she said no but her friend said sure. Then after they asked what for? The photographer mentioned, “Oh, Im doing a photo essay about prostitutes,” and walked away. Terri nor her friend are prostitutes and were never asked if they were. This happens a lot. People impose what they want you to see of the homeless.
With some folks lined up, Dylan began creating. Apart from the challenges of finding and working with his subject matter, he also had to make sure he created images properly, as wet plate collodion photography isn't nearly as simple as "point and shoot." Dylan explained that is has made him slow down and become a much more methodical shooter.
The biggest thing to overcome was the collodion. It’s an organic compound and it's always changing sensitivity speed. Having enough light and cooperation with the subject to stay still was difficult. The sensitivity of digital/film is your ISO. The best quality you can get on a digital camera is 100 maybe 50. Collodion is measly 1 and with older (3 month+) collodion it can get down to .25 or lower. You need a ton of flash power or build your exposure with sunlight.
The approach is entirely different, but the results speak for themselves. Photography goes back to being a craft when there are some many steps involved and a physcial/chemical development taking place. Dylan compared shooting digital to using a wet plate setup:
The wet plate session is more about the magic/science of photography. You also get to see an image like you've never seen before. Collodion is most sensitive to UV light and has a different color spectrum for where colors fall in the grey scale.
The collodion session feels special and rare. We've become so desensitized to photographs in this instant digital age and spoiled for how easy they are now to take. Because of that they have lost a bit of their meaning and value.
I don't feel one is better than the other. They both have strengths and weaknesses. Its nice to just grab my camera and head out the door and take 100 shots in seconds that look good. Also very rewarding to do a wet plate session and get 3 amazing shots that you just can't with digital.
Besides the photographs, a short documentary film has also been created. Supporters of the project will get to see this short film that includes interviews with the subjects in the images. It's a very intimate look into the lives of these people, and rather than a broad commentary on the scene of being homeless, the discussion goes deep into the subject's personal stories and experiences.
If you'd like to learn more about the Neighbours Project or make a donation for an artbook or copy of the film, head over to the Neighbours Project website.
All images used with permission from AventuraPhotoVideo.