Review by Jim Hughes
One beautiful fall day in Maine a few years ago, I found myself sitting in the Subaru. I was just staring into space, admiring the spectacular foliage and wonderfully clear light while waiting for my wife to finish shopping. Suddenly, my attention was drawn to some activity in the distance on the Village Green. I saw a bunch of young people, wearing what appeared to be typical teenage grunge, gathered around a park bench. There was, if I remember, a blanket on the ground, and a young couple, literally wrapped up in each other, peering over at a man standing behind a big wooden box on an old fashioned tripod.
Approaching dusk made it difficult to see. I crossed the street to get a closer look. The box turned out to be a view camera, probably mahogany, with a well-worn bellows and a large brass lens aimed at the couple. The man behind the camera wore a floppy fedora. He held up a hand and ducked under a black oilcloth slicker of the sort worn by local lobstermen, deftly racked the lens forward to focus, hung his hat over what I soon learned was an antique shutterless barrel lens, pulled out a large dark slide, gently lifted the hat from the lens, and counted silently as the late afternoon light inexorably faded. Finally, he hung the hat back over the lens.
After quickly reinserting the dark slide, the man stood bolt upright and sprinted toward a nearby parking area, leaping over a heavy chain link fence in the process. Walking as fast as I could, I followed him. By the time I caught up, all I could see were two legs kneeling on the pavement. The man's torso had wriggled into a small opening in what appeared to be a makeshift orange-colored tent built into the rear cargo area of a Toyota RAV4 whose rear lid was open. A few minutes later, he extricated himself. He seemed surprised to have had an audience. I introduced myself.
"Oh, I know you," he said with an affable grin. I imagine he meant that he knew my writing about photography, not surprising since he was obviously a photographer himself. His name, he said, was Gary Briechle (he spelled it for me), and he had left the rat race behind in New Jersey to settle in small town Maine a few years earlier. I understood totally, I said.
"Are you doing what I think you're doing?" I asked. "Probably," he replied, pulling out from the back of the Toyota a small white plastic tray full of really murky, and smelly, liquid. "I'm teaching myself wet plate." Wet plate collodion, to be specific, using hand cut glass plates for which he had devised a way to partition an 11x14 back into various medium format dimensions. In the tray was, indeed, a small glass negative that he rocked back and forth in his home-made solution so I could glimpse the image in the lowering light.
"It's all about the light," Briechle said. "The whole process."
"Photography is seeing. Light is beautiful. Pure. I don't like the direction photography mostly seems to be going in. So I decided to take the next step. Backward, some might say. I coat my own glass with an orthochromatic [blue sensitive] emulsion in my portable little dark tent. The reddish light inside is pretty dim at this time of day, and doesn't affect anything. Then I run over to the camera, load the wet plate, remove my shutter hat from the big old brass lens, expose by feel and growing experience, then run the plate, still wet, back to the tent, where I have very little time to develop it out. Wet plate collodion is photography at its most basic. I'm still learning. I'm having fun. It's like magic again."
I thought of William Henry Jackson setting up camp next to a stream on the top of a mountain, his huge camera, a crate full of glass plates and his portable darkroom all strapped to his trusty mule "Hypo."
It's been at least five years since I first met Gary Briechle. In the interim, he has continued to photograph the old fashioned way. His subjects mostly have been friends and family willing to sit or stand for the long exposures in dim light his process requires. He has had a book in the works for years. It is finally published, by Jack Woody of Twin Palms Publishers, Santa Fe, New Mexico. The first edition of Gary Briechle Photographs (the cover of the book says "Photographs" but the publisher lists the book simply as "Gary Briechle") was 1,500 casebound copies. List $60. There is also a limited edition of 25 copies in a clamshell box, with an original print, numbered and signed by Gary, for $800, from Twin Palms.
There are 66 superbly reproduced photographs—complete with the flaws inherent to such a hand-made process—in this handsome 10x12-inch volume. Pages are meticulously coated in lustrous black ink as if they were from an album. The images themselves are reproduced in glossy duotone on glowing white-paper rectangles framed in black. In the right light, contact prints from glass seem to float above the page. The technique is a perfect match for Briechle, who somehow transforms the picturesque outer world that surrounds him into a deeply felt interior vision. Also included at the end of the book are photocopied excerpts from the journals Gary constantly scribbles in. Although there is a brief statement by the photographer on the Twin Palms website, no written introduction, or any sort of clarification, appears in the book itself. Knowing Gary, he probably felt it was better not to explain himself, to let his pictures do the talking. But as a a writer and editor myself, I believe a little context goes a long way, which is why I felt compelled to write my own brief introduction. Thus this review. I can only hope Gary understands.
Jim Hughes is the major biographer of W. Eugene Smith and the founding editor of the original Camera Arts magazine. His writings for TOP can be found here.
Original contents copyright 2013 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
No featured comments yet—please check back soon!