When the opportunity came up to grab some time with today’s interviewee, I couldn’t help but fall over myself to grab it with both hands. You see, Robert Marsters is a bit of a conundrum. It’s difficult to pin him down and pigeonhole his style – even his method.
He’s a life-long film photographer who’s work ranges from the professional to very personal and he dabbles* in something that never ceases to amaze me.
Over to you, Robert.
Hi Robert, what’s this picture, then?
A portrait using wet plate collodion, to create a tintype.
When working with wet plate collodion, I find that it’s very different from the way I’m used to using film; it requires you to prefocus your subject, and prepare your plate for the shot.
There also are a number of factors that can cause great damage to your tintype while shooting. Wet plate collodion is sensitive to:
- Heat and humidity
- The length of time it takes you to make your exposure
- The amount of available light you have to create your exposure on the sensitized wet plate
Any and all of these greatly effect your image. So you need to plan in advance while using this method of shooting. The results however, are well worth the work it takes to achieve them.
Ok, so who are you? (the short version, please)
A creative person who likes to use photography, and graphic design, to illustrate visuals I find interesting.
When did you start shooting film and what about now? What drives you to keep shooting?
When I was a child; I was always the one loading my Kodak Instamatic camera, with a fresh 126 cartridge of film, and if I was lucky, it was dark and I’d get to use the pop-up single SYLVANIA flash bulb. It would blind people with a brilliant blue light, which smoked as it burned the toxic blue coating on the bulb to a crispy charred piece of trapped glass.
The excitement continued as I got older and got my hands on a Polaroid Land Camera 100. It shot 108 film and had a huge flash that you would clip on the top of the camera for added fun.
This was the beginning of my obsession with Polaroid film for years to come, opening the door to working with emulsion image-transfers and lifts, while exploring alternative processes years later.
Although the excitement of using a camera turned into abusing the film; I think what drives me to “keep shooting,” as you say, is the same excitement I got back then.
Today I mostly work with collodion, doing wet plate collodion tintypes, which can be just as exciting to work with, because you create and pour the collodion yourself and then go onto create an image with this wet collodion and watch as the image mysteriously appears on your plate.
So, there are two ways to view what “drives me to keep shooting”; the process of creating the medium that will turn into an image, and the act of creating the image.
Any favorite subject matter?
Portraiture, and or people and how they relate to the space they’re in.
This can range from things being out of place, to pets looking almost identical to their owners, or an odd combination of actions happening at the same time? My interest in subject matter changes constantly, but in general I enjoy making portraits.
Most of the time I see something, or someone doing something that I find interesting, I will approach them and ask if I can photograph them. If I’m asked why, I’m more than happy to try and explain it to them and most likely they respond kindly and we make the shot. But I will never take a photograph against someone’s wishes. I have seen some work shot that way and I find it very offensive to the subject and tend to equate the action to the way someone uses a weapon. Of course there are situations where this might be acceptable, a crime being committed, or something of that nature.
I do find that using a Diana camera, or say a Brownie Fiesta camera – which I have used on and off for many years – makes approaching people for a photograph much easier to do. When I am shooting with my Hasselblad 500c, and I ask people if I can photograph them, their guard goes up when they see, what looks like a “professional” camera, and they seem to become suspicious of why I want to photograph them.
There seems to be a stigma attached to using an “expensive” camera, as opposed to using a plastic toy camera to create an image. This is one reason I prefer to use older cameras in general, the whole process of being photographed by someone they don’t take too seriously, allows them to be much more amenable to the action.
I believe cell phone cameras have this same effect on people; most people feel comfortable posing for a cell phone, but if you are using a larger digital camera like a Canon or a Nikon, they are less apt to be as carefree about their actions. It becomes time to check the hair and make sure they appear presentable for the image somehow.
Does this mean they consider this to be a real photograph and the cell phone shot, just having fun? What is a real photograph anyway?
Then, there are times I just shoot from the hip and don’t look through the viewfinder at all.
I enjoy being surprised in the darkroom by what has been photographed, without the action of intentional framing.
What’s the next challenge…your next step? How do you see improving your technique, or what aspect of your photography would you like to try and master in the next 12 months?
The future challenge I see for myself over the next year will be, not necessarily considered improving my technique, but pushing the way I use collodion to create images.
Experimenting with different ways of applying it and transforming it to develop a desired effect. It’s a lot like working with liquid light and I want to play with how it can be applied to different surfaces and textures, creating abstract visuals.
You might be interested in...
You can never use film again. What’s your last roll?
It wouldn’t be a roll, per se, but a box of Polaroid type 55.
My favorite film of all time, next to Kodachrome. Like a treat…you would get both a positive and a negative.
You have 2 minutes to prepare for an assignment. One camera, one lens, two films and no idea of the subject matter. What do you take with you and why?
I’ve been in this situation many times; found it wise to pack my Hasselblad 500c and as many bricks of Kodachrome 64, 120 I can carry. Of course, this would have been back when you had good film available to choose from.
The second film would be Kodak T-MAX400; this way you have yourself covered for color situations and black and white, which can be pushed or pulled to help when shooting in a wide range of changing visual situations.
You have an unlimited supply of film to shoot in one location. Where do you go?
I lived in Brooklyn, NY for over 14 years, and feel I have only just scratched the surface there. Visually, it’s stunning, and at times overwhelming, but it has a mix of people that you do not find in most cities. The neighborhood I lived in was a mix of old world Italian families, young couples of all types, and over time, yuppies and hipsters rolled in, but everyone got along in this vibrant environment.
My hood wasn’t the only area that fostered creative energy and collaborative support for each other. In general, there’s a communal effort to just get along and support each other. Kind of like a school of fish moving in some kind of kinetic motion; each knowing when to step around each other, so as not to upset a balance. As a photographer and a graphic designer, I am never at a loss for visual stimulation while I’m there.
What brings me back to BKLYN; beyond visiting the many friends I have made over the years, most likely is the “reboot” feeling I get creatively while I’m there. It’s quite unlike Manhattan. Great bars, interesting characters, and wonderful historic architecture are some of the many reasons I return and will continue to return for many years to come.
It’s a city that’s always changing and doesn’t get stale. Sure you get pissed that the F is always running late; but the conversations you have with the other subway passengers on the platform can introduce you to your favorite new restaurant, or inform you that there’s a glass blowing studio just two blocks over, that has new classes starting soon.
For me it’s the people and the vibe that BKLYN generates, that keeps me coming back.
What do you think is people’s greatest misconception about film photography and how would you set it straight?
That it can be mimicked with digital tools today. If you go to a gallery and look at original printed pieces by Nancy Rexroth, or Hiroshi Sugimoto’s amazing work shooting Theatres, Seascapes, and Architecture, you’ll be amazed at how hauntingly beautiful they are. This can never be reproduced in a book or on a computer screen.
Yes, I own thousands of photo books, and I know we can’t spend our lives just going to galleries to experience nice work, but when you see a beautiful black and white print, or an amazing color print by William Eggleston, or Stephen Shore‘s Uncommon Places, you become aware of how beautiful grain is and how it can be used to make an image come to life.
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
Positive: People are using film again; I look forward to the day when people appreciate the difference between digital images and photographs shot on film and printed in a darkroom.
Scanning negs don’t do them justice, it’s best to be in the darkroom, using your hands to burn and dodge the print, you can see the difference.
Negative: Digital; I’m an analog fan all the way.
- I said “dabbles” up top. Talk about an understatement.
I find so-called alternative processes a wonderful arena of both visual and mental stimulation. The results are so far removed from what I grew up understanding photography to be; a real window to another place and time. In addition, the sheer work involved from the perspective of shooting and developing “normal” black and white film boggled my mind when I first came across wet-plates and the ilk.
You might say that shooting and developing traditional black and white film in itself is a world removed from (minilab) C-41 or E-6 processes; and these themselves are removed from the now-pervasive digital processes we see everywhere from Photoshop and Lightroom to Instagram and VSCO.
Each step/lurch forward in technology and convenience sees us take a physical step back in terms of our connection to the image produced; whether that be the tapping of a few buttons on a phone screen, hitting “GO” on a minilab or mixing up black and white chemicals.
This gradual disconnect also sees us slowly begin to take actions and elements of the photographic process for granted. From black and white film to (minilab) C-41 we largely handed off the ability to add nuance and variation to our development process to a machine. From from the wet plate and other alternative processes to black and white film, we handed off the responsibility of creating – from – scratch the medium on which we capture our images to (mostly) factory automation.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that we ditch our (very handy!) sheets, roll film and 135 cartridges, no. What I’m trying to get at is that there’s a purity in owning, understanding and creating photographs from scratch.
That in itself is to me an amazing story to be able to tell, and something I personally want to embrace in my photographic future.
Thanks again to Robert for taking part. If we’re lucky, there may be a little primer coming from him in the future that will allow us to delve a little further into the collodion process – keep your fingers crossed.
You can find Robert lurking over on Twitter or even better, head on over to his website for a look at more of his wet plate and other work. You’ll also be able to see more of Robert’s work over at Salt in the near future. If you’ve not yet come across Salt, I’d highly recommend you head over, sign up to their newsletter and have a read. There’s plenty of great stuff to uncover!
Disclosure: Salt is edited by friend of EMULSIVE and all-round great guy, Ray Larose, who also runs the fantastic Physical Grain He’s not paid for this plug though…yet. “hint hint”
Share your knowledge, story or project
The transfer of knowledge across the film photography community is the heart of EMULSIVE. You can add your support by contributing your thoughts, work, experiences and ideas to inspire the hundreds of thousands of people who read these pages each month. Check out the submission guide here.
If you like what you're reading you can also help this passion project by heading over to the EMULSIVE Patreon page and contributing as little as a dollar a month. There's also print and apparel over at Society 6, currently showcasing over two dozen t-shirt designs and over a dozen unique photographs available for purchase.