Why you should care
When was the last time a photo honestly took your breath away?
The future is promising and the present is thrilling, but the real mother lode of invention may be the past. So say the boys of Studio Baxton in Brussels, a photo studio and shop where despite all the heat and light bursting from smartphone cameras, they are looking to the extreme past — over 160 years or so ago — for the keys to photographic greatness. Specifically: wet-plate collodion process photography. Words that sound much sexier to studio founders Vincent Bouchendhomme, Nicolas Lambert and Silvano Magnone than they do to you.
“Come on over,” said 34-year-old Magnone, an Italian rounding out a team that includes a Belgian and a Frenchman. “I can show you firsthand how wet plate works.”
Our struggle as photographers is to blast the optic nerve into seeing what we’re seeing …
— Gabriella Marks
It sounds much dirtier than it is. Wet plate technique was used from 1851 until it was replaced by other, less finicky and dangerous techniques in the 1880s. It uses a glass negative, the so-called wet plate, to produce a photo that is wonderfully, eerily detailed, full of all the visual texture our modern eyes are used to seeing on our hand-held devices, but with a depth and personality that leaves the viewer feeling they’re not just seeing something but seeing into something.
It’s a rarer and rarer experience since, as photographer Gabriella Marks says, people tend to develop “visual insensitivity. Our struggle as photographers is to blast the optic nerve into seeing what we’re seeing in a different way.”
Nestled on the Place de la Vieille Halle aux Blés in Brussels, Studio Baxton testifies to its founders’ deep, collective obsession with all things photographic. There are vintage cameras, Polaroid and Lomography cameras, alongside wild films from Foma, Fuji, Ilford, Kodak and more obscure brands and types. The studio offers vintage processes for developing them all. Baxton not only does the processing, but also it teaches others how in regular workshops. It’s all in the service of its guiding vision of image projection as an experimental art.
However, not everyone sees artistic merit in revived methods. Bay Area photographer Kasia Tanalska dismisses wet-plate collodion techniques as retrograde gimmicks. “Sometimes old is just different and not necessarily better,” she says. Especially when new technology can get similar results.
“In the end,” Magnone says, “every wet-plate shot is an adventure of its own, and we’re exploring different means to get to a desired end: arresting imagery.” When you have to hold perfectly still for five minutes to get a photo, you may not offer much competition in the point-and-shoot category — but Studio Baxton is tough to beat when it comes to capturing an image in a very particular way, reproducing it and preserving it. “For us, it’s all a delight,” says Magnone. “If you can see what I mean.”