Nick Brandreth is unusual in today’s Great Recession professional environment. He gave up a lucrative career in the world of New York City advertising photography in order to follow passion for his art. He came up to the George Eastman House (the foremost museum of the history of photography) in Rochester New York, home of the once-prosperous Kodak Corporation and the world-renowned photography school at Rochester Institute of Technology, which he had previously attended. Here, he apprenticed with Mark Osterman, Process Historian at the Eastman House, in order to learn about alternative and historical methods of creating photographs. He gave up shooting digital in order to try to reinvigorate analog processes which have all but disappeared. Now he teaches at the Eastman House and will be trying to finance his new project through Kickstarter. It consists of photographing areas that would be affected by fracking and natural gas drilling in Upstate and Western New York in order to bring attention to the issue, using the alternative methods of photography he has taken as his medium.
I sat down to talk to Nick about his creative process, his decision to move away from digital and toward historical photographic processes, his work at the Eastman House, and his newest project.
Nick’s Kickstarter can be found here
What is your process like?
Right now, on this project I’m doing for Kickstarter, I’ve been making this silver gelatin emulsion coated on glass plates and I shoot them on large format camera. Pretty much all I have been doing is making lots of plates, going out shooting, scanning and stockpiling the best images that I have. It was interesting because I was working on this while I was learning all this stuff. I came up to apprentice Mark Osterman at the George Eastman House.
While I was focusing on this, the first workshop that I helped teach was on Ambrotypes and the next was on 35 mm Daguerreotype. But eventually we got to the Silver Gelatin Emulsion workshop that was in March and somewhere around January I learned how to make the emulsion and it really clicked. It was perfect for what I like to do and the way that I like to shoot.
After I got out of RIT I just shot digital because that’s what made sense. That doesn’t mean I don’t like digital. It’s really cool how you can combine digital technology with the old stuff. I really like the negative on the glass though. Sometimes I like looking at negatives more than I like looking at prints. Digital is great because it just allows you to shoot and shoot and not waste any money. This costs money now so every plate is really precious. I am very focused at this point because I’ve spent so much time shooting with digital. I was really able to hone in what I was trying to look for when I was out the field and develop my style.
Do you think slowing yourself down so much has changed how and what you shoot?
I like that it slows me down because with digital I was wasteful with the way I shot. I was sloppy. I do really like my digital work though. The stuff that’s on my website right now is all digital. But now, I’ll sit underneath the dark cloth for twenty five minutes and compose. It’s a matter of matching your mind’s eye and your camera’s eye and sometimes they don’t agree.
Do you have some idea of how the final print or negative is going to look while shooting or is it more of a surprise?
It’s a mix of both. Sometimes I’m able to really pre-visualize it. It’s not an exact picture. The way I like to shoot and work is a kind of hunter-gatherer mentality. Sometimes I can go out and things are right there and you can just capture them and sometimes you really have to work and almost stalk the picture. Sometimes I’ll go out and try to find the idea that’s in my head, whether it’s a certain angle or a certain subject. Sometimes I can’t describe it but I see it and I have go out and look for it and other times I’ll think of something and something else shows up and I think ‘Where did that come from?’ You have to be sharp to pick up those little gifts along the way.
You have to work mostly with large format cameras right?
I choose to, because I really like it. It’s the most masterful form of photography. It means you have to take time to concentrate. You have to carry all this stuff out there. Not that 35 mm stuff isn’t heavy but there’s something about a wooden camera. I don’t have a shutter on the camera that I use now. I also like the old press cameras because they’re light, like the old speed-graphics.
So how did you get started in this new direction?
I moved out of my parents’ house and I was doing my street stuff and I wanted more out of my work than making ink-jet prints with a digital camera. I guess because we had a taste of film when we were in school. I went up to Maine for the Fourth of July and was brainstorming and having awesome conversations with my roommate from college. When I got home it just kind of clicked. I found out about making digital negatives and how from that you could make platinum prints. I’ve always been a pretty good printer and so I just had to figure it out by trial and error. I wanted to be more scientific about it. And then I thought maybe I’ll take a workshop. Tintype seemed to be the next best place to go. I went to the Eastman House and took a workshop with Mark Osterman. It was great. He told me he was looking for someone to be an apprentice but not just someone who would show up once and a while but someone who would really study under him. He’s a modern master of craft.
Do you think that working with these alternative and antique processes is more of a kid of craft or hands on experience than working with digital?
For sure. I think there’s this resurgence of being a craftsman. Make your own beer, make your own chocolate, make your own books and things like that. People are into it. And that’s what this is. You don’t need Kodak, Canon, Nikon, Fuji, or Polaroid. It’s all very simple stuff but you have to be scientific about it and you have to experiment, figure out what works, and then go out and make your artwork. It’s the commitment of putting the time into it. Not a lot of people are able to put in all the effort but if you are, you can have really awesome results. I wanted to learn everything. I started making platinum prints and then boom!
You have 150 years of technological evolution. There’s all kinds of crazy processes and everybody has their own formulas to make emulsions. The amount of things that it will be possible to do with gelatin technology, I’ll never be able to touch. There’s infrared and other super scientific stuff. Making film is rocket science. What I do is basic. It’s more like craft brewing. We are going to see Kodak and Fuji and everyone stop making film. It’s going to happen. There will be something out there but it’s going to be a very niche market. It’s not about just making film, it’s about having infrastructure. This is sort of like how micro-brewing came back. When our parents grew up, what did they have to drink? Bud, Coors, and Miller. Now we go to the corner store and there’s a hundred different types of beer. Ten of which were brewed down the street.
Is it like going back to the era of pre-Prohibition in alcohol when there were breweries practically every few blocks? Will there be people making their own film every few blocks?
Well that’s the thing. Before Kodak started there were tons of companies making dry plates, photographic equipment, and then Kodak came along and they made tons of money. They grew and they absorbed all these little companies. There were a bunch of them out here in Western New York. The camera I work with was made by Blair Camera Company out of Boston. They became Kodak Blair Company. They absorbed all these people. So I think it will go back to people making all this stuff.
The best part about the blue sensitive emulsion I work with is that you can watch your negative develop because you develop under a red safe light. So it’s really cool for getting people who never experienced photography into photography. You don’t have to stand here in the dark for a half an hour. That sucks! Nobody wants to do that.
What is the subject matter that you most like to shoot in the new work?
When I first moved back up here I was shooting on a 4×5 camera with film and I was just doing urban stuff, like street portraits, and then got more into shooting landscapes. But I focused on shooting street portraits because I felt that the 4×5 camera was so much easier to work with in urban environments. When you approach people you have this big box and you have to go behind a cloth and most people have never seen that before. They have this weird notion of some movie they saw when they were a kid. They expect me to pull out flash powder or something.
It must disarm people.
Absolutely! It’s like the gun debate. You have an AR-15 and you have the Mini-14 Ranch Rife. They both shoot the same round but one has a wood stock and one is black and evil looking. So if I go in there with my 35 mm camera with Canon logos all taped up, they say, “Oh, that’s what photographers use on the news. You’re like a paparazzi or something. You want to exploit me!” And then I show up with this box with a dark cloth and get a totally different reaction.
How do you go about your routine of shooting?
After work and on the weekends I go out and shoot. During the week I’ll make an emulsion and the week after I’ll coat it and have a bunch of plates made. Sometimes I’ll pick some place that I want to go to. There are some really awesome places that people don’t know about in New York State. That’s what I’m trying to focus on right now. Photographing the landscape around here. I’ve been all over this country and there’s something about Upstate New York that’s just really magnificent. I feel attached to it.
So now I am trying to photograph areas that would be affected by natural gas drilling or fracking. That’s a big debate right now. They are trying to start fracking in New York State. So far they haven’t allowed it to happen and I believe this is the last year of a moratorium. So I want to go into areas that will be affected. The landscape up here is older than time. The Adirondack Mountains are older and at one time were taller than the Himalayas. They’ve been worn down over time. The area where Rochester now is exists because of the retreat of the glacier back into the Great Lakes. It’s so mind boggling.
It’s all about time. Like the plates. They’re slow emulsion so they’re slow exposure. I am using a tripod. I am taking a long time to compose and to expose. So everything about it is slow. When I am photographing a landscape and the trees start to move you see them blur so it gives you an impression of the passage of time.
If fracking starts to happen like it did in Pennsylvania we run the risk of poisoning groundwater and the water in wells. The water up here is clear, fresh, and beautiful. If you go the Finger Lakes it’s crystal clear. It’s unbelievable. It looks like the Caribbean. Start to drill and you’ll begin to see the effects ten years later. Kids will start dying of cancer. It’s a slow death [of the environment] and it takes a long time.
Do you worry that people will consider your work ‘retro’ looking in some kind of fashionable way, in more superficial terms than the ones you are trying to convey?
No, I can’t help how people are going to interpret my pictures. Either they will love them or hate them. All I know is I made something that’s from my heart, that I cared about, that I took the time to really create something. All that matters to me is that it satisfied me. I hope it satisfies other people and makes them think or gives them a good feeling as they are looking. I hope it conveys the sense that I love the land. I want them to feel the same sort of enjoyment from it.
Somebody made a joke in the comments for the video that was posted from the Eastman House. They said, “Oh yeah, I really love the way people used to paint houses so I am painting everything with lead paint and building it with asbestos.” I thought that was funny! I said, “Ok, that was great!” So I can see that. But I’m not just going back in time. I scan the pictures and make a digital negative and can use that to make my prints because I can retouch it and its perfect every time. If I want to make five prints, I just make that digital negative and boom, it’s done.
And also, it’s not like I am selling out because I am doing alternative processes and using digital. Instead of a chemical reaction it’s a computational reaction. I don’t see any difference. It’s just using technology. You bet your ass Ansel Adams would use Photoshop if he had it! And actually in one of his books he said that digital photography would eventually be ‘the thing’.
Is there anyone you look to specifically who you see as a major influence in this work?
If you said pick a photographer, first and foremost, it would be Walker Evans. I really enjoy Nathan Lyons, Harry Callahan, and Robert Adams. You know, the stuff from the sixties and seventies; the New Topographic guys. At the same time I really like looking at old Pictorialist pictures and sometimes it affects the way I like to manipulate the 4×5 camera. I want to make these pictures look sort of timeless and dreamy. I like that about Pictorialist stuff and I like sharp, straight, rigid photography too.
At the Eastman House, I just go in the library and I try to take time out of my day, a couple days a week, and just grab books at random. I might grab well known photographers like [Edward] Burtynsky or Sally Mann or perhaps some weird history book or something like that, and I just tried to absorb as much information as I can.
Can you tell me a little more about what you are doing at the Eastman House now?
I came up to do the internship and that ended in August. I got a grant and that kept me around until now and then starting in October I will be fulltime and my title will be the Historic Process Specialist. My job will be to be a face for the workshops, to interact with the public, help run the workshops, and research things to incorporate in our workshop schedule in the years to come. And that’s really great! At the Eastman House I have access to the archive and the library, which everybody does. I don’t think many people know that. You can just make an appointment, show up, and look at something in the archive or library, whenever you want and whatever you want. It’s just a wealth of information.
What are the workshops that you teach?
We have everything from the very dawn of photography. This year we had a workshop entitled Pysautotype. It was pre-Daguerreotype, before conventional photography. You dissolve rosin onto glass. Next year we are going to try to offer digital negative making and a digital black and white photography class. Spliced in there we will have printing processes like Collodion Chloride Printing-Out Paper, Sodium Albumen printing. We are offering a new one that I am researching now called the Developed-Out Salt-Print. Then we’ll do Tintype, Ambrotype, 35 mm Daguerreotype, which is really cool because eventually you will not be able to use a 35 mm [film] camera. But you can use these little silver plates, polish them and fume them over iodine, put them in your camera, make a picture and then you put a piece of red or orange glass over the top of it in the sun. It will develop up, put in some fixer and you will have a beautiful little Daguerreotype. It’s that simple. It’s all just pure elements. There are no compounds involved. It’s great! You don’t have to mess with Mercury.
So we are always trying to come up with something new and different by doing more research and using these more obscure processes. It’s really neat!
Are you happy you made your decision to move away from advertising photography?
Absolutely! To be a great photographer in one discipline is very admirable. You go out there and you become a Richard Avedon and you photograph all these celebrities and your work is very well known. And that’s cool but my whole goal in this was to become a master of the medium. I want to be a master of photography. Every discipline. Shooting and making my own work and teaching people. Any amateur can go out and by mistake make a really beautiful, timeless photograph but to consistently make beautiful pictures over a lifetime, over a full career, that’s a real challenge, a real accomplishment. There are photographers who have done that. I would like to be in those ranks someday. I would like to make a beautiful career’s worth of work and to educate people and publish books and give photography to everyone. Not everybody has to make masterworks. I think the noblest thing we can do as human beings is take pictures. I don’t know, it’s great!
Nick recently gave a talk at the Eastman House about his time there:
You can see more of Nick’s work at his website: http://nickbrandreth.com/