It’s now been several weeks since Shane sent me my mask for the project. In fact, looked at another way, it could even be two months. Written down like this, it seems an age and yet in my mind it just seems like a week or two. So, eight weeks +, surely that’s enough time to execute an image for the project. Well, you’d think it would be, but unfortunately for me, and for the next person on the list, it’s not so simple. Let’s step back a bit.

When I put my name forward for the mask project I had reservations. Would I be good enough?  Would the rest of the images be good or would I be part of something embarrassing? Is the subject too clichéd? What would I actually shoot? Lots of questions…but I felt like the wet plate collodion photographers were a community of folk who all seemed to want to get along and it felt like a good, interesting, communal project that would be fun and worthwhile to be part of.  I liked Shane’s original image, which set it all off, and I thought it showed the potential for the rest of us. Also, I have this theory that in the evolution of every photographer there are certain photographs which have to be taken in order to progress. No one is an instant Cartier Bresson. Go to any photographic club and you will see the sorts of images I mean presented on a regular basis. The lone tree, the spot coloured portrait, some decaying fruit, a comedic street shot, a pile of coloured paint pots/pencils/spices, a highly HDR portrait of an old woman/man, a monkey in a cage at the zoo.  We’ve all done at least one on our travels through this photographic journey.  Obviously, gas mask images have their undeniable place in this lexicon. So the trick then becomes, how to make yours unique?  Not a simple task.

So once I made the decision to go ahead I needed ideas. My friends who I meet every Monday in the pub (we call ourselves the Monday Night Photo Club, after the Tuesday Night Music Club by Sheryl Crow) are all fellow photographers and often subjects of my images can tell you that while I am quite good at having ideas, I’m less good at getting around to implementing them.

I started writing down what I associated gas masks with. I looked at other images of gas masks, I looked at videos of gas masks. I asked the Monday Night Photo Club what they thought of when they saw or heard about gas masks. It all tumbled around in my head and then it came out. I had several ideas for shots I’d want to try out. The images appeared in my head and that’s where the problems really started, in fact that’s where the problems always start. In my head.

The problem of what Ira Glass calls, ‘The Creative Gap’ has long plagued me.  (If you haven’t already seen it, I really encourage you to watch this four minute video clip in which he explains it.  I promise you will feel better by the end.)  The inability to make images in real life that are the same as the vision inside my head. I’ve seen others talk about it and I myself have spoken about it at presentations. It knocks me out. One of my initial ideas for a gas mask shot involved suspending the mask in the air by fishing wire, then firing a spot light at it to throw a long shadow of the mask on to a wall. A naked model would be lying partly contorted on the ground with her neck and head on the vertical part of the wall and her face in the part of the shadow that would be the eyepiece of the mask. It combined the ideas of sex, fear, death, that many associate with gas masks. I thought it was cool! So I decided to see if it was possible. I have a fresnel theatre spotlight (1000kw) that I use for my wet plate portraits and my iphone work. I figured I’d set it up, fire it at the mask and a wall and see what happened. Answer: nothing like what I expected. For one, I needed a bigger area (not currently possible), a much brighter spotlight (not currently possible), and a much longer focal length lens (again not possible). I could probably actually achieve all this with borrowed strobes and dslr and long lens and then shoot the resulting image on my macbook screen with my wet plate camera but that would be a cheat I feel. The trouble I then ran into, and which has therefore stalled me somewhat, it that this was my favourite idea of the many I’d planned. That little test a week or so after getting the mask, knocked the wind out my sails. I just hadn’t thought through how hard it would be with the limited resources available to me in “wet plate land”. 

Image 2Next problem. Well, I already knew that I was having problems with my chemicals. My last shoot had ended with comets and artefacts and grit on the plates. So I decided that before I actually hired in a model for the actual shoot I needed to make sure I had everything working and I had roughly figured out how much light and where it should go for the location and chemicals I would use. Then, as luck would have it, one of the models I’d made a note of as a potential candidate for a shoot, contacted me to say she was over from Denmark (where she lives) and several of her customers had just cancelled on her so she had a few free days and did I want to shoot with her. I decided to quickly try to re-organise things and we agreed she’d come over to shoot some gas mask shots. Of course, I had not re-tested the chemicals or worked out lighting etc. So I decided to filter everything, clean everything and cut some aluminium half plates to use as test shots, then some full plate and 9” x 9” black glass plates for the actual images. A list was made of simple shots I could try to get that might work within the limited confines of my dining room (with table removed) and the lights I had available.

Dayne, the model, had never worked with a wet plate photographer before so I spent the time explaining the procedures we’d go through and how she’d have to be still for 30- 60 seconds. Then we started in earnest.

First shot, no image. This completely threw me. No image! I’ve never had that. What followed were a series of images that had the appearance of being solarised and overexposed but that I was a hundred percent sure could not be overexposed. I gave up on trying to shoot the mask shots and just went for simple portraits while diagnosing what was going wrong. All my test plates got used up and we were two hours in with nothing to show for it except one very high key portrait.  At this point I should have stopped. All I had left was a half plate black glass plate and a pile of full plates and large square plates. Of course, I decided, what is really needed here is a spot of lunch…

After lunch I decided to just keep going, working around my now, almost working, exposure. The small half plate was kept aside for the second shot I wanted to try, should we get that far. So I loaded up a large square plate, Dayne put on the mask and we set up the shot, again. What followed were a series of blurry artefact full images and I noted that my collodion was being used up rapidly. I decided to have one last try. Here it is.Image The plan was a simple Munch’s The Scream style shot. With Dayne trying to mimic the terror and madness of the subject. This has been cleaned up in photoshop as the original has bits all over it. It was just so far removed from the clean contrasty image I envisaged that again, I felt deflated. I’ll come back to this image though at the end.

With an hour to go before she had to leave to head back in to London I decided that as I had the props and a model it’d be stupid to not at least try to set up one of my other ideas. I knew that the image, even if it was exposed properly, would be covered in artefacts but it seemed stupid to waste the opportunity. So I moved the lights around and set it up. With only time for a couple of plates max I composed for a large 9 x 9” but instead put in the half plate in my back to take a test exposure for the new lighting. The test exposure actually came out kind of okay except for the expected artefacts. So I loaded up a 9 x 9” and took the final image. It was a good exposure too. The composition was appalling though so you aren’t going to see it here. Instead, what you can here is the test shot. The idea was that Dayne had been to a masked ball and now she was back, after the party, and was having to change in to her post apocalyptic world clothing with gas mask. We would be looking at her looking at herself in the mirror, with her clothes on the ground and her gas mask hanging on the mirror. Typically, the mess on the plate in the test shot obscures the mask!Image 1

This was all done almost four weeks ago. Since then I’ve been ill for three weeks and then away on business. Now I am back in Mask mode but I have the problem that I am almost out of collodion, certainly not enough to get through a full days shooting. So I need to replenish that, then test it all works, then sort out location and model and try again, oh and I have to go to the midlands of England, Scotland and Ireland on business. So you can see this whole mask project is not as simple and straight forward as it appears.

Before I finish, one other observation about ‘The Creative Gap’. (If you haven’t already seen it, I really, really, really encourage you to watch this four minute video clip in which he explains it.  I promise you will feel better by the end.) On Monday I took my plates down to the pub to show my friends. Interestingly they all actually loved The Scream shot. They commented on how the weird artefact in the middle actually had the look of a gas attack, which I had never noticed. They all also felt it was very unsettling and alarming in some way, which was part of the intention. No one thought it was crap and bin-worthy.  Except me. This is not the first time this has happened to me where I’ve been hyper-critical of an end image which viewers have then liked. I will try to remember this going forward although, needless to say, I do think it is very important to be critical of your own work. Let’s hope the next shoot is a winner…