10″ x 12″ Ambrotype
Isabel Leeson, Belgium
I wasn’t interested in the mask project at first, I didn’t like the object. But ideas started invading and I ended up signing up fairly quickly.
I’ve had a number of different concepts, a couple I chased a little and they fell through purely because of practicalities, another that I left aside because it scared me a little.
I played around with a couple others in the meantime, such as this shot of the Mask as an alter ego.
Another one, which you see here, was taking with a Pinocchio puppet I found in a second hand shop.
I liked my first test shot so tried a bigger one but found that the people I showed it to didn’t understand what they were looking at. It was very interesting to hear people’s interpretations of the image, especially because they had nothing to do with what was on it. They just couldn’t see the puppet. I even set up the image as I shot it for a friend, but he still couldn’t see it until I put the plate
in front of it to he could place the image and have all the bits that were out of the frame. Only then did he see it. Once that had happened that was all he could see.
Eventually, I then went back to my original, unpleasant idea. At the time this all started there were things happening with the infamous Dutroux case in Belgium. For those of you who haven’t heard of him, Marc Dutroux is a dangerous paedophile whose conviction in 2004 (for kidnapping and sexually torturing six girls, and murdering four of them, in 1995-96) provoked an outpouring of national grief. At the time I started working on my plate, the case had recently been back in the news, as Dutroux’s wife was being freed thirteen years into her sentence for complicity in the crimes. Also, the case of Dominique Strauss-Khan, the once would-be next French President who was accused of raping a chamber maid while in New York City, and the continued and seemingly endless revelations from the UK about Jimmy Saville’s unsavoury time at the BBC. Add to this, the constant drip-feed in the media about touchy feely priests and the documentary by Sofie Peeters about girls who have abuse shouted at them because they are wearing a summer dress, or are called prostitute for it when there is nothing vulgar or indecent about them, and the fact that I know several people who have suffered sexual harassment, assault and even been accused of harassment when all this person does is say what he (wrongly but innocently) believes women like to hear, and I realized this is what I wanted to talk about with my Mask Series plate.
Another picture had formed in my mind, but I worried about not being able to reproduce it. As Gordon Fraser mentioned in his post I worried about the Creative Gap.
Of course, I couldn’t get the image I wanted. I shot a couple plates in that direction but it was no good.
I tried a few other things and most of the successes that got me closer to the right one were accidental. We moved a step closer when my model readjusted his footing, I readjusted the camera and composition sort of happened by accident and I yelled at him “stop! don’t move”.
It still wasn’t right. I wondered why I was trying so hard to say something important to me and thought maybe I could try and focus on the mask itself, deconstruct it, analyse the object and not bother with telling a story. So I did a series of little square plates doing just that, which I am still working on.
Again, it wasn’t right but it turns out the mask is actually a very interesting object to me. I was convinced I’d know the plate when I had it and hoped that my shoots would stop being put off all the time because of random things going wrong in either my, or my model’s life. They didn’t but I managed a second shoot and tried a couple things and then I had it. I felt like I’d finished but since my model had come a long way I decided to keep shooting just so I wouldn’t feel guilty about wasting his travel time.
A few days passed and, though I couldn’t shake the “I’m finished” feeling, I also didn’t seem to have THE plate. I was troubled by the interpretation and comments of the people I’d shown them to. It was incredibly interesting but nobody said what I needed/wanted to hear.
Then Melanie Garrett contacted me to arrange a meeting as she would be in Brussels. She asked to see some of the plates. I showed her a little of everything. The assault concept caught her attention. It was our conversation about this that got me thinking again and that put me back on the path I wanted to be on. So Melanie, this plate wouldn’t exist without you. Thank you for your precious input.
I set up a third shoot. I worked each shot meticulously, careful about every detail. One plate I rejected before it went in the silver tank because I’d poured it badly and a corner wasn’t perfectly square. For some reason I tried it anyway. This one made it to the final shortlist.
THE plate ended up being the very last one. With just thirty minutes until my model’s train was to leave, it suddenly hit me that I was trying too hard to have the right focus, that there was no need for him to stand perfectly still, or to get it too clean, because the my concept is anything but clean. I shot the last one in a rush, deliberately out of focus and let him know I didn’t care if he moved. I developed and fixed it in a hurry, dumped it in the water and ran off to drive him to the station. I didn’t even look at the plate until much later.
Three plates made it to the final shortlist. I’d come a long way between those first shots and the last one. My collodion had aged nicely and had a much better contrast. That last plate seemed stronger, more disturbing , dirty, deviant, it has the right feeling.
Abusers hide under layers of secrets, discretion and threat. They hide behind the priest’s cloth, inside the victims families, in schools, in public places, they hide in plain sight. Abusers take over the lives of their victims, the toxicity is felt forever to the point they lose their identity and what remains are the acts themselves – which take on enormous all invading proportions. It is for all of these reasons that in my image, the shirt hides the mask, the mask hides the penis.
I chose to call my submission ‘Nowhere to hide’ because I wanted something which talked about the contagion and fallout from abuse. In this image, the abuser himself is revealed, and so cannot hide. Nor do the victims have anywhere to hide from their suffering. In choosing to shoot such a provocative close up, I also wanted to viewer to feel they had nowhere to hide from this subject. And, it is my hope that with more and more cases like the ones mentioned above coming to light all the time, society as a whole will stop feeling there is anywhere to hide.
It has been exhausting. I have shot many, many plates, used up huge quantities of chemicals and glass for this. It has been incredibly challenging for someone who is fairly new to wet plate but what an amazing experience! I have learnt so much technically and it has been an invaluably rich human experience. Thank you Shane for having started this, and thank you also to my model for his infinite patience with me.
If, you are obsessive about your wet plate geekery, you might like to know that ‘Nowhere To Hide’ is 10×12 inch clear glass ambrotype shot with a Vageeswari camera and 360mm Ross Express lens. Lighting is 4 x 150W x 5500K + 1 UVA face tanner. One month old etherless collodion, nine month old silver nitrate solution, iron sulfate developer, Ilford Rapid fix. The plate is Renaissance Waxed. The photographer, pictured here in her natural habitat of a Brussels’ café, is thirty-seven years old, a proud mother of three, and right-handed.