Half the world under lockdown and the rest is under advisement to implement physical distancing and other measures to stop the spread of COVID-19. In this environment, a traditional approach to studio portraiture and other close-quarters photography needs to be rethought but I’m not talking long paparazzi-style lenses for candid portraiture.
There have been some great examples of innovation in portraiture over the past few weeks but none of them come close to that of polymath Morgan Barbour. Morgan reached out to wet plate photographer Shane Balkowitsch — whom you may remember as the photographer behind last year’s wet plate portrait of Greta Thunberg at Standing Rock — about a unique idea: taking a wet plate portrait over the internet at a distance of some 4,000 miles (~6,400km).
I recently spoke to Shane about the project to learn a bit more about the project’s inception, how it was pulled together and of course, the results.
We have a mutual friend in Josh Withers and he had made wet plates of Morgan before. Morgan reached out to me and said she wanted to know if there was a way we could do a remote wet plate portrait.
Although still actively taking making wet plates in his studio, Shane has been cancelling his normal Friday portrait sessions for the past month in order to help stop the local spread of COVID-19. It’s worth noting that at the time of writing, Shane’s home state of North Dakota is one of 9 US states without a formal stay-at-home order, although Gov. Doug Burgum has repeatedly made calls for residents to take social distancing seriously in an effort to halt the spread of the virus.
Over the course of a few days after making contact, Morgan and Shane hashed out a plan for their remote wet plate. Shane had been introduced to Zoom video conferencing software a few days earlier and thought that they could use it to attempt a real-time exposure. He wanted to try a portrait based on an early silhouette photography technique, which itself was derived from a method of cut/painted portraiture, which gained popularity in the mid-18th century.
Connected via Zoom, Morgan would be in London sitting in front of her iPhone in profile with her hair up and backlit by a bright constant light source. Shane would be back in Bismarck, North Dakota with his 8×10 camera pointed at his screen. It sounds absurd and you’ll have to check out the behind the scenes photos and video below to see for yourself just how much was going on at the same time but…
…the result is a unique photograph, “A Long Distance Exposure In Isolation”. Likely the only one of it’s kind in the world:
The pair, along with mutual friend Josh Withers — himself an accomplished wet plate photographer — agreed to a virtual meeting time of 12:30pm US Central Standard Time On April 3rd 2020. Over the course of an hour, two plates were made, one of which will be kept by Shane at his studio and the other will be sent to Morgan as a gift for her participation. Both exposures were 60 seconds each and unlike the wet plate portraits of 100+ years ago, no head braces were required to keep Morgan still (no mean feat).
The idea was that we were not going to let this coronavirus stop us from creating together.
As you’ll see in the video below (recorded by Josh Withers), Morgan was assisted in London by two “lighting assistants” India Kahn and Holly Watson. The three are all in isolation together and India and Holly helped block excess light, as well as provide Morgan with her backdrop.
The video includes the process of fine-tuning the light, pouring fresh plates for exposure, the exposure itself and development in the darkroom. I highly recommend you check it out.
The final result is surprisingly pleasing and if you look closely, you’ll notice a white cursor in the final scan. Shane went on to tell me, “For us, it was all about the collaboration, as long as we were working together in some way to make a piece of art together during this time, that was what counted. I was concerned that the resolution or the pixels of the monitor would somehow translate onto the plate, so I did my best to soft focus on the edge of her shadow and there really is no evidence that this was a concern after we made the first plate. A 60 second exposure is not for the faint of heart and Morgan came through like a champion.”
Shane goes on to say, “We are not sure if this is the first time this has ever been achieved, but the thought that it might be was very rewarding. Just think what Frederick Scott Archer would think of this marriage of technology and process. For him to imagine that someone could make a truly remote, real-time exposure thousands of miles away from the subject…he would never have believed it but here we are! We made it happen and we are so very happy that we believed in each other. At the end of it all, we had a creative rewarding day together, even though we were not together.”
The past few months have been challenging to say the least and in the online film/traditional photography community at least, there’s been a huge wave of support with photographers helping each other out on so many levels, be it mental health and wellbeing, creative and even direct financial support.
I can say hand on heart that I have never at any point in my life thought about taking a portrait using film via the internet and my mobile phone/computer — let alone a wet plate.
Bravo to everyone involved. I hope Morgan, Shane and Josh realise how far they’ve set the bar. It’s going to take some beating but I’m sure someone will do it. Josh’s video and BTS photos from both sides of the Atlantic ocean follow below, as does Josh’s 45 minute video of the entire virtual studio shoot.
Behind the scenes photos and video
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