Funny thing about today—we’re photographed more than ever before in human history.
Nearly every single day of our lives is catalogued for all to see, tagged and codified for easy examination.
But who’s it being recorded for? Will anyone care? Will anyone even know where to find all these shots in 100 years?
This is what is driving Ed Gately: a mission to put permanence back in photography.
Gately has eschewed his former life in IT for a full-time gig in photography, an art he took up as a teen after realizing he wouldn’t be able to reliably narrate his own photographic memory.
“For the longest time, I never owned a camera; I had this young and naive belief I would vividly remember all of my experiences, until one day I was moving to a new home and opened a box. I discovered a book of photos documenting a language trip to Europe I had taken in High School. As I flipped through them, I instantly knew how wrong I had been. While I had not forgotten about the trip, generally speaking, recalling it might have been like watching a movie with the sound off. Each photo transported me back to that moment… the smells… the sounds… the emotions… all of it. The very next day I bought a camera and my adventure started.”
That adventure has pushed him forward as a photographer—by delving into the past. He now specializes in wet-plate photography, an antiquated technique that, while time-consuming, has resulted in images that have stayed around for centuries. His new business, in addition to making tintypes, will push to make glass negatives used to create vibrant 19th century prints, tactile documents captured in stunning, sharp detail.
“Ansel Adams has a famous quote,” Gately said. “‘The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print to its performance. Each performance differs in subtle ways.’ Think about that—every capture has a performance. If you just click to capture and then immediately click to “print,” you are missing out on the performance. I think I fell in love with the process because you get a chance to write the score and perform it all at once… right in front of your audience. It is incredibly personal and humbling.”
We leaned in a little closer to let Gately shine light on a more lasting look into modern life.
You talk of “permanence.” Why is that so meaningful to you in this day and age? Permanence is so undervalued today. Do you know if the image you created and saved digitally to the cloud or a social platform will be around to share with your kids? Or their kids? Or will it even be there for you late in life? Technology changes rapidly and may be incompatible with the way you digitally stored your images, and there is always the potential of data loss. Even current inkjet technologies have only been around for 20 years. We have no guarantee of their permanence. This was a big reason I fell in love with the wet plate collodion process and now print-out-paper processes; like cyanotypes. We have historical examples of these items existing for over five generations. Irreplaceable memories passed from one generation to the next. That is powerful.
Is there an irony to you, in that the disposable and affordable nature of photography today may give more people an opportunity to learn the art, but they may not appreciate the tactile relationship of the old process? When creating art with photography you are engaging in two general actions; capture and print. The affordable nature of photography in the digital world has been amazing. Our phones now have wonderful cameras in them to capture any moment in front of us. The vast majority of all captures are now “printed” on a screen. It has been a boon for getting exposure or just sharing with friends. All this is great to create work rapidly, but is it helpful to create it thoughtfully? You mention the tactile relationship of the old process. This is an amazing thing for me as an artist, but I think it may be even more important for the viewer. Each process I practice has a unique language for telling the story of an image. Holding a finished tintype in your hand is really a moving experience. The level of detail the process is capable of capturing surprises most people.
How much trial and error before you were able to get some workable images out of the wet plate process? Oddly enough, the first plates I poured turned out pretty decent. I had already spent over a year gawking at YouTube videos before I tried. It also helped that my very first hands-on attempt was done at a one day workshop over at UA Creative Studios with an amazing instructor. Heather Wetzel. In my eyes, the greatest advantage the wet plate collodion process is that it can all be created right in front of your eyes. The ability to visually inspect your work as you process almost always ensures you get some sort of image. The process of creating clean almost modern looking images or ones with the distressed look you intended is another story altogether. To further complicate things, the chemistry itself is its own living and breathing entity. You have to understand the interaction with temperature and humidity, decayed performance due to age, and maintenance of certain chemicals due to precipitation. It requires an immense amount of dedication to produce work on a high level.
Which photographers you are inspired by, around the world, and locally? There are so many amazing and talented photographic artists out there. If I just focus in the area of alternative process, I’d have to pick these three. First, Alex Timmermans from Holland for crafting amazing storytelling images. His set work and approach to solving problems without photoshop is rather unique. Second, Wilfred Thomas from France for his soft and delicate portrait work. I’m not sure he has shared a portrait I am not in love with. Locally, Tariq Tarey gets my vote for his gorgeous film portraiture work. So smooth and clean, it’s easy to waste too much time on his Instagram feed.
Who is one person you’d love to photograph more than anyone? I hope this does not sound cheesy, but the next person who comes into my studio. Sure I would love to meet someone famous and have them sit in front of my camera, but I am just as content having a friend or a new client come sit in my studio. It takes 10-15 minutes of total time to capture one image. This really changes how you interact and engage with each other. We must slow down on both sides of the camera and engage in mindfulness. I would not trade this for anything.
19th Century Photography and Prints