Master of the Plate: A Conversation with France Scully Osterman about Ritual in Her Historic Photographic Process

Janice Kidd

France Scully Osterman is an artist and teacher of historic photographic processes. She teaches workshops in her skylight home studio in Rochester, NY. She lectures and provides hands-on workshops throughout the world with her husband Mark Osterman, the photographic process historian at George Eastman House International Museum of Photography. In the dry, dead cold of November 2012, I spent two days with France in her studio, soaking in her tour de force mastery of process, craft, and innovation.

Virginia Creek

Janice Kidd: I think back to our time together in your home studio learning to make ambrotypes. Even the preparation of the glass to put in the camera struck me as methodical to the point of recitation. It brought up deeply buried sense memories of childhood activities: saying rosary in church, copying poems in long hand. Although these were administered as punishment, I now think of them as active ways to engage the mind. Do you think people are so removed from hands-on work that they are missing some basic pleasure of process and repetition? What is the value of a historic process for artists?

France Scully Osterman: The collodion process requires preparation and planning. The steps of creating one image at a time from scratch all conspire to slow down the actions of the maker. Embracing this suspension of time offers an opportunity to create more thoughtful images.

Some chemical compounds need days or even weeks to settle before use, while we make others fresh. Even before making an image, a glass plate gradually transforms into an artifact. With each step, care helps to achieve success. These are for practical reasons.

Cutting Glass Detail

But preparation plays other important roles. The repetitive actions encourage a more meditative state—an opportunity to clear one's thoughts. It becomes a ritual. These small acts help prepare for the act of creation.

Historic processes, collodion in particular, require the photographer to learn a craft. Pouring collodion, handling the glass plate by the edges, pouring developer, and determining when it's developed all require a certain amount of dexterity.

Students from certain cultures are better prepared for craft. "Play" for children from some Asian cultures includes making origami, which is excellent training in manual dexterity.

JK: When I think of ritual in your work, I think of the process of creating by hand. It's that kind of knowledge passed down by example that's not necessarily written down. What do we lose fundamentally as human beings when we cast aside handmade processes? How does losing a historic photographic process affect our artistic psyche, both as artists and the audience?

FSO: Working with raw materials is part of the creative experience, and making your own film and photographic paper from scratch is empowering. When proficient, the maker has ultimate control. Some artists say they embrace the "uncertainty of the process." My husband, Mark, says that if he gave his Leica to someone with no experience in photography and asked him to take a roll of 35mm film and develop it, the results would be pretty uncertain. The collodion process is only uncertain if you don't know what you're doing. Have you ever heard an artist brag that they don't know how to use their brush?

Dusting Before Coating

JK: Where do you identify ritual in your work? Your Sleep series documents the fundamental ritual of sleep in a bed. How did you manage to capture that natural state and represent sleep, not merely eyes closed, nor evoke death?


FSO: The original idea for my Sleep series was to make a perfect portrait, if that's possible, unpretentious and unposed. When you wake up from a dream, this time is a dawning of consciousness; you are not yet aware of any of the details of your life. You are you in the purest form. Perhaps it's the closest to being in touch with our own soul. I have been there and it feels the same as when I was five years old.

Each portrait is unique because the individuality and movement of the sleeper informed, or at least influenced, the composition. Asking someone to sleep while you photograph them requires trust, and it is a privilege I took seriously. One concern was that too much attention, staring for example, would awaken my subject and ruin the moment. So I used the focusing glass for composition, otherwise limiting my gaze.


JK: There is ritual in your photographic process as much as in any craft—in the sense of historical work. The term "antiquated" can be derogative, meaning a not-so-efficient or innovative method. Why do you practice your photographic processes? And why have film processes—even modern ones—become something people don't generally practice anymore?

FSO: If intended to be derogatory, it is due to ignorance. One might make the false assumption that because something is antique or out-of-date, it is inferior. In fact, there are nineteenth century processes that are quite superior to "modern" (silver gelatin) film or digital. In the right hands, collodion is not a primitive process but a sophisticated film without compromise.

For example, the process allows the user to make a positive or a negative, far superior in resolution to any contemporary image. With this process, the photographer makes negatives suitable for any type of printing technique, from salt, albumen, and platinum/palladium to silver gelatin, and digital.

Some consider collodion's insensitivity to warm colors one of the drawbacks of the process. Although this could be compensated for, it's one of the things Mark and I like about it. There's a certain richness to the way this film interprets colors.

Some may say the process requires exposures that are too long, making the form impractical. Photographing typical artistic subject matter, such as still life, portraiture, or landscape, is not a problem. The process can be fast enough that Le Gray used it with a guillotine shutter to capture breaking waves. I've seen a photographer use the collodion process to capture a skateboarder in mid-air. Obviously, it was staged, and I'm guessing done many times, but that was something new and exciting to see.

JK: Roger D. Hodge in his editor's letter in Oxford American (Spring 2013) states, "Everything in the marketplace and the culture at large argues against the literary impulse." He's commenting on the death of print journals, newspapers, but also of print platforms for art in general. How does digital representation affect your images?

FSO: As a visual artist, there is something especially rewarding about the physicality of a journal or book. In the future, a whole new generation may hold those exact same books and see your work.

Sharing your work through publication, whether print or online, is rewarding when the publishers reproduce the work properly. It's much easier to fix an image incorrectly reproduced if it's online. So, there's a dark side to publishing work in someone else's publication.

Approximately 10 years ago, we were making slides of our work for reproduction in books. One publisher refused to make any adjustments to make the image in the published article match what we sent. He asked, "Why are you so worried about this? No one has ever complained about how their photographs were reproduced in our magazine!" He said this, of course, without ever considering that most photographers are so grateful to be in print, that they would never consider complaining. As we feared, he reproduced our images horribly. When you see your carefully created prints reproduced that way, it hurts to even look at it. We never showed the article to anyone nor spoke of it again.

JK: Does ritual in process produce consistency of voice in any artist?

FSO: Knowing how to use your tools as an artist is essential to producing serious work. With the collodion process, the ritual of activity offers a more certain result. And style is based on repetition.

JK: So much of your process requires technical knowledge—application of chemicals timed to ever-changing variables like daylight and humidity. Is adaptation essential to ritual and therefore to mastery?

FSO: Yes, I'd say to some degree. Traveling with the process requires adjusting to new atmospheric conditions or changes in chemicals. There is a lot of troubleshooting required with the collodion process, but it's not a mystery nor is it alchemy.

"Artifacts" are the imperfections on the plate: streaks, swirls, and even fog. These happen on occasion and may or may not contribute to the look of the image. If it's good, it's "serendipity," but sometimes it's not. How does one know the difference? It's a matter of taste, aesthetics, or intention perhaps. But sadly, I think too many artists rely on them, thinking this is a key to making something look interesting or different.

JK: I'm thinking of the silver gelatin landscapes hanging in your dining room. One was Virginia Creek with its furry edges. Have you consciously manipulated your process to achieve certain effects? Or have you become unfocused, and the effects were accidental, though pleasing, and learned to adapt the process? During my workshop with you, my mental stamina waned. I was not used to long periods of handwork like that. What have you learned about your process in moments when your attention lapsed?

FSO: It's ironic that you use the word "unfocused." Actually, the "furry" edges are caused by lens aberration, and this choice was absolutely intentional. It's one of the elements that contributes a sense of timelessness to this work. For this work, balance is essential. Image detail and focus balance with areas intentionally out of focus.

Seeing everything in focus is not natural for the human eye. There is no way to see one thing close-up and something else in the distance in perfect focus at the same time. To compensate for this, we quickly scan our environment, re-adjusting our focus to take in multiple records that are reassembled in our consciousness. This can be visually challenging for someone with attention difficulties. I have ADHD. This might be why I find photographs with infinite sharpness, like an Ansel Adams landscape, technically interesting but excruciating to view.

When we focus our eyes on an isolated subject, our peripheral vision is actually quite narrow. Similar effects occur when photographic images are created with old portrait lenses, no doubt the reason why artists today are so drawn to their spherical aberrations. Such lenses produce images similar to the way we see when we are being still, more contemplative. I much prefer this effect and find it conveys a sense of memory.

JK: Your photograph Altar Stone is so rich with subject matter. It evokes a whole narrative of reverence for working the land and reverence for the land itself. Would you comment on the theme of ritual in that photograph?

Altar Stone

FSO: Thank you. It looks like an ordinary stone. But it has this amazing history. It was a secret altar during enforcement of penal laws in Ireland in the early 1900s.

Altar Stone was the last plate I made on a month-long expedition to Ireland with Mark. It was our first time shooting with collodion abroad using a portable darkroom. The last day I could shoot it was raining. I made a three-minute exposure, and during the last minute, the sun came out. The changing light was recorded on the plate.

Friends of ours who owned the field where the stone lays carefully plowed around it. They had reverence for its history. Resting in this field is this monument to resilience. The fact that food grows there means people will remember the stone. Like so much of Irish history, it depends on the keepers of the faith and the storytellers to pass it on.

JK: You have a long history of Mark teaching you and sharing criticism for each other's work, but what form has collaboration taken between you? For example, were the Light at Lacock photos a collaborative effort, or did one of you act as support for the other's main ideas and forward momentum for the project? How important is autonomy in your own work given that you work and teach so closely with your husband?

FSO: As artists, Mark and I worked in parallel. We often used the same processes, collodion in particular, but each expressing our own artistic vision. We made the landscapes on location, so it was natural to exhibit together. But if you look at Mark's landscapes and then mine, you will see that his work is more cerebral and planned, while mine is more emotional and spontaneous.

As I was working on my Sleep and Bed series, Mark was creating a series called Confidence, about his 1920s-style medicine show he created and performed for twenty years. The plates present the feeling of space as a direct result of his obsession with the study of natural lighting in our skylight studio. Mark's obsession with lighting—and our shared experience of working in the studio—has had a huge influence on my work.

Our first collaboration was The Light at Lacock, Sun Sketches at the Twilight of Photography. We created a collection of paper negatives using William Henry Fox Talbot's original process of photogenic drawing using his earliest camera designs. We made negatives in Talbot's home in the village of Lacock, Wiltshire, England, in 2010, the 175th anniversary of his invention.

This was a collaboration in every sense. Together, we chose the subject matter and process, locations, and compositions. While we took turns setting up the cameras, there we were always debating and sharing points of view. We gave each other permission to play.

Eventually we concentrated on photographing the effect of light that surrounds the subject rather than that which illuminates it. Looking upward, we noticed that the trees within the abbey walls and in the surrounding fields reflected the sky around them. Soon we found ourselves photographing the sky. The results are as painterly as our inspiration, but with our own contemporary point of view.

Like Talbot's negatives, ours were fugitive, too. The same light that created them also destroys them.

While scanning the first tests of our fragile negatives, we were curious to see how they might translate as positive images. At the crossroads of these two technologies, we discovered that digitally inverting the photogenic drawing negatives into positives revealed more than Talbot could have ever dreamed.

It is only by the ironic marriage with the digital pigment print that now displaces photography that these colorful sun sketches will exhibit for the first time.

We created these negatives, inspired by the dawn of photography, at its twilight. That which makes the negative obsolete makes it possible to exhibit them.

Pablo #2