Ventana Monthly News and Entertainment
Vintage Style: Alchemy and Artistry in the Digital Age
In the cyber-obsessed modern world, photographer Luther Gerlach is a throwback to slower—yet far less simple—times.SALLY RICE focuses on the resurgence of a timeless art.
On Creek Road, a two-lane country byway, an old GMC cube truck spray-painted with clouds and graffiti slowly winds eastward toward Ojai. It’s carrying strange cargo: huge plates of glass, and chemicals like nitrocellulose (aka gun cotton), silver nitrate, and ferrous sulfate.
Sharp beams of filtered light crisscross the road like cobwebs under the afternoon sun. Just past Camp Comfort, the truck pulls over beside a stream, under the shade of an enormous oak with a split V-shaped trunk. The cabin opens, and out steps Luther Gerlach, master of wet-plate colloidal photography, a process invented in England in 1848 when the art of photography was born.
The truck, which once belonged to a plumber, now serves as Gerlach’s custom-built mobile darkroom. He hops into the back and begins the arduous task of unloading his photographic equipment and setting the stage for a shoot.
Gerlach is one among a handful of photographers in the world whose expertise lies in producing fine art images with the original techniques used by photographers in the mid-19th century. He is also the resident expert on historical photographic processes and technologies for the Getty Museum, and he’s conducted more than 200 workshops and lectures over the past few years.
From the outside looking in, it appears that Gerlach, who now lives in Ventura, has led a charmed life. Born and raised in Minnesota, he spent an adventurous childhood traveling the world. His father, an anthropologist and professor at the University of Minnesota, took the family abroad whenever possible. “My dad did his PhD work in Kenya at the School of African and Oriental Studies—that’s where I was conceived,” Gerlach says with a broad grin. Together, during the summer months and school holidays, the family traveled to exotic destinations including Haiti, Jamaica, Tahiti, Moorea, Germany, and England.
A strong academic, Gerlach was gifted in the sciences as well as the arts. In college, he discovered his passion for biology, and eventually received his degree in the subject. “For a long time, I really thought that was where my career was headed,” he says. “But even as a biologist, I always had a camera with me.”
Gerlach took to photography at a young age, following his father’s lead. “Wherever he went, he always brought his camera, and so did I,” Luther explains. “There are dozens of shots of me as a child with my little blue Diana camera strung around my neck. It was a plastic toy, of course, but my dad always said, ‘There is film in it Luther. Your photos are mixed in with mine; I don’t know who took which photo, you or me.’”
It was encouragement that would certainly pay off. This past Christmas, Gerlach’s family found the vintage Diana camera he so loved as a child, and gave it to him as a present. It now sits on a shelf in his studio beside his other professional cameras and lenses. Gerlach is grateful for the photographic skills he learned with his father, such as how to use a handheld light meter. “You know,” he says with conviction, “the proper way to learn photography.”
Gerlach is not a big fan of modern photography, although he studied photography at the Institute of Art in Minnesota after receiving his degree in biology. “The problem with the digital world,” Gerlach explains, “is that the camera does the thinking for you, and even so-called professional photographers lack the skills and understanding of how the process works.”
In the early ‘80s, Gerlach fell in love with a ballerina, and together they moved to Santa Barbara so the dancer could be closer to her family. He opened a woodworking business, and on the side pursued his passion for fine art black-and-white photography. But money was tight, and Gerlach couldn’t afford new camera equipment. So one day he went to a camera swap meet, held at the local fairgrounds. That single event changed the course of Gerlach’s life forever. That’s where he discovered large-format cameras.
“There were literally hundreds of cameras in there,” Gerlach says, beaming. “Back then, everyone was looking for the small 35 mm variety, so the old, large-format cameras were cheap. I realized I could refurbish them. I had been reading all these books about photography, and I thought, ‘Hey, these are the cameras Ansel Adams used, and there are his lenses.’ No one ever complained about the quality of Adams’ work.”
Driven by his newfound passion, Gerlach sold the camera he had at the time and began investing in large-format originals. He began with an 8 x 10, and then moved up to a 12 x 12, and a 16 x 20. “All the early photographic processes I was interested in were contact prints. That means the size of the negative is the same as the final print. So a 16-by-20-inch camera produces a 16 x 20 print. Wow, that would hang really well on a wall, and I didn’t have to do much enlargement work.”
Eventually, Gerlach trained himself to not only restore antique large-format cameras, but also to build them from scratch. “In my woodworking business, I collected a lot of wood and used it to build this camera here,” he says, pointing to the 22 x 30, 85-pound camera set on a tripod a few feet away from the truck. “If you know how to restore a camera, you can build a brand new one in the same historical style.” Together with his friend and fellow camera maker Patrick Alt, Gerlach made the camera, capable of producing a 22-by-30-inch image. It is currently the largest wet-plate collodian camera in the world.
The lens is the only component of large-format cameras that cannot be reproduced. Over the years, Gerlach has collected more than 200 original, historical lenses that date from the 1840s through the early 20th century. Current prices for the original lenses are rapidly rising, as people begin to understand and rediscover the beauty of the original process of photography versus working in digital. “It’s becoming an ‘in thing’ now, to work in historical processes,” he says, showing me one of the long lenses. “This one here runs about ten thousand dollars.”
The process begins by carefully pouring the chemical collodion over a piece of glass. It is then immersed in a bath of silver nitrate. While still wet, the plate is inserted into a sealed box for transport from the darkroom to the camera, where it is inserted into a special plate holder inside the camera for exposure. The photographer then removes the “cap” on the lens, and the plate is exposed to light. Exposure time can be anywhere from a few minutes to ten minutes. Once exposed, the plate is then removed, revealing the photograph.
In a simple analogy, the wet-plate colloidal process produced the very first Polaroid-type image. Yet, as primitive as the wet-plate process might appear, it produces the finest grain film made in the history of photography.
Here’s how Gerlach describes the difference between wet-plate and modern film photography: “If you’ve ever taken a piece of modern film and held it up, without an image on it, it’s foggy and cloudy. A piece of glass (the negative) is perfectly clear. Then you have molecules of silver, versus crystals that modern film is made of. It is so unbelievably fine that if you take a photograph of a leaf shot from far away and blow it up, you’ll be able to see the caterpillar holes in it. You’ll never get that with modern film. And in digital, it will never ever happen. It’s an amazing process: difficult, frustrating, and slow. But it’s addictive.”
After a long day shooting, Gerlach relaxes on an oversized leather club chair in his Ventura studio. In front of him: a wall of beautifully framed photographs he’s shot, all sizes and dimensions. Centered, in a frame set inside an antique box propped on a low table, is a photograph of his eight-year-old daughter, Amelie. Angelic with soft brown curls that drape over her shoulder, she is sitting in a chair, facing the camera with a sweet expression while holding a dead bird. The image is slightly eerie, and yet beautiful and serene.
Other framed still life images of fauna and flora are dreamy, romantic, and timeless. Beautiful imagery, mesmerizing and captivating. One photograph depicts a female nude, a popular subject matter that emerged in the late 19th century known as “odalisques,” meaning “reclining nude.” The young woman is lying backward, facing down, head first over a cascading wall of large rocks that spill into a pool of still waters. It is strongly reminiscent of the pre-Raphaelite paintings popular in the 19th century by such artists as Millais and Rossetti.
As he sits staring at the photographs on the walls and other framed images that are too big to hang—instead they rest on the floor, leaning against furniture—Gerlach says he doesn’t think he’s accomplished much in his life: “The more you do, the less you feel you’ve accomplished. I have so much more I want to learn, it’s frustrating. The only true bliss in life is ignorance.”
Despite Gerlach’s proverbial “artist temperament” of self-criticism, he’s got a blowout year ahead of him. In April, he’s off to Amsterdam to teach workshops. After that, he’ll be in the south of France doing the same. And just this morning, Finland emailed inviting him to be an artist in residence. “Whatever that means,” Gerlach sighs. “But kidding aside, I’m really excited. I feel that this year I will have great opportunities.”
© 2012 Southland Publishing, All Rights Reserved.