Lawrence, Kansas-based photographer Earl Richardson’s latest set of wet plate portraits were commissioned by the Emerson Collective as part of their ongoing photo series titled “America Seen.” The organization, which focuses on education, immigration reform, the environment, media, and journalism, devised this series to reflect the varied experiences of American photographers across the country.
Taken at a pivotal time where the US was in the midst of dealing with a global pandemic, Earl’s wet plate images offer an intimate glimpse at the photographer’s view of America through a series of portraits of his family in their home. The house where the photos were taken was ironically built in 1918, during the last severe pandemic.
While Earl had never worked with the Emerson Collective before, he knew Barb Kinney, their photo editor, from attending the University of Kansas in the late 1970s. Barb had seen some of Earl’s wet-plate photography work and thought it would make an excellent addition to the series, so she approached him about working on the project.
Barb contacted me about doing some wet plate images of what America looked like to me. She thought it would be nice to have a selection of wet plate photos to go with the images being made by other photographers across the country. When business was slow for me, I was very excited to utilize the medium to create images for this project.
Earl first became interested in wet plate photography seven years ago and often utilized the medium in his personal work. Also known as the wet-collodion process, the early photographic technique dates back to 1851. It produces captivating black and white images with heavy contrasts while maintaining a somewhat imperfect gritty look.
I did it purely for fun and never intended to do it commercially. Except for a few commissioned portraits, this was the first time an entity like this had ever sought me out to do wet plate.
Typically, Earl doesn’t use this technique for commercial work due to the challenges that come from producing photographs in this way. The process is slow and involves utilizing chemicals to produce images on black glass, black plexiglass, or aluminum — in this case, the images were produced as tintypes by using aluminum. Even after many years of practice, the results are often entirely different from what you envisioned when capturing the image. However, Earl’s dedication to keeping the art form alive and the uncertainty of what you might get is part of what makes this commission special.
I’m always on the lookout for clients who might use the unique look, but I had never found a client who I felt was a good fit (or who wanted to indulge the unpredictability of the process), so for someone to commission me to do this was a real treat.
For this project, Earl was given free rein to photograph how he saw America through his lens. He was given four weeks to complete the project, but all his travel plans for the year were permanently on pause due to the pandemic. As the US gradually shut down, Earl shifted gears from traveling for commissioned projects and a planned vacation to Ireland to spending time at home with family. He decided then to capture the people closest to him and objects at his home to truly reflect his view of ‘America’ at that moment in time.
My America was very constricted geographically after March 2020. Most of my clients are colleges and universities, so in about a week, I saw my entire calendar of work for the year wiped clean. I’m thankful that my family members willingly gave their time for this and that my wife Teresa put up with my moodiness when I was working in the heat making these plates.
When utilizing this technique to photograph people, patience is vital. The large-format camera can be cumbersome, and the wet plate collodion process has low light sensitivity. The images here utilize a mixture of strobes and ambient light, which need longer exposures. Hence, when posing for the images, subjects often have to stay very still and hold poses for exposures of up to 10 seconds to avoid being motion blurred. When reflecting on the process, Earl felt this was the perfect metaphor for how everything felt during the pandemic, as if frozen in time.
It’s a slow process and has a certain heaviness for the subject and the viewer; you’re confronted with a massive camera and are being asked to stand dead still for a period while I focus the camera. The timeless gravitas and seriousness of the images seemed suited for the present situation.
When you look closely at the images of his wife, daughters, and kids, there are hints of the intimate moments that happened during this time. For example, a tiara worn on a kid’s birthday and a pensive moment of calm enjoyed by his wife in their garden. The technique also lends a moody, nostalgic quality to the images that add to the overall sensation that you’ve been given the privilege to look inside someone’s personal life.
The project allowed Earl to get creative while also serving as a vehicle to process the reality of what was happening around him. While he usually prides himself on producing the cleanest wet plate images that are void of marks or messy edges, for this project, he decided to embrace imperfection, and it lends the images an additional sense of perspective.
As hard as I tried to make the cleanest plates possible, the plates I made for this project seemed messy around the edges. I don’t know if I was subconsciously affecting how I was making plates, but after a few, I decided to embrace what I saw because I thought it reflected what I felt as we were navigating this virus. To me, everything felt chaotic.
Photographer: Earl Richardson