Fred Fraser is a Vancouver-based self-taught photographer and dedicated people-shooter. Two decades into his profession, Fraser took his work old school when he began to experiment with wet plate portrait photography, a technique dating from the 1850s and employing gear older than your grandparents. Its process is arduous, perilous, and unforgiving, and the results are fittingly dramatic: monochromatic, intensely dark, dripping with atmosphere and age. Find more about his work at fredfraser.com.
Can you describe your artistic background?
I went to school for music, intending to get a degree. It was a small school in a small town, and as a result the faculty and students frequently ended up at the same after parties. At one such party I was chatting up a very nice girl, and the chairman of the music department, ordinarily a very nose-in-the-air sort of person, was standing nearby, quite drunk, and overheard the nice girl asking me what I would do with my music degree after graduation. The chairman of the music department quite helpfully slurred an answer on my behalf, “work at the beer store.” So, I changed into music education. I would have ended up teaching band at high school, but by the time I graduated I knew I wasn’t ever going to teach. I moved back to my home town (near Toronto) and auditioned for a few bar bands, but I was burned out on playing (and hearing the “we’re gonna cut an album next year” refrain). Since junior high school I had played in a succession of rock bands, big bands, ensembles, and symphonies—so I quit music.
Shortly after that, I met a girl with a 35mm SLR camera. Until then I had no idea cameras had settings. I had a Kodak Instamatic as a kid—the kind that took disposable flash cubes. I knew how to push a button. Shortly after meeting, the girl and I decided to marry and began looking at wedding photographers, and that’s when I realized that photography was a thing. Six months later I took my first job as a photographer working at what was the equivalent of a Walmart portrait studio. I only lasted a month or so before moving on to freelancing for established studios in Toronto, and later the Lower Mainland of BC. After about three years of wedding and portrait work, I moved into commercial work, where I have been for over twenty years. (How did that happen!?) So, photography . . . never had one lesson. Self taught.
In the age of the digital photography takeover, you decided to go painfully back to basics. How did you get into wet plate collodion photography, and can you give us a brief rundown of that technique? It hardly seems like something one would pick up for fun.
I have always loved the look of wet plate—the tonality, the color, and, owing to the more careless practitioners (like myself), the deconstructed look—but I never really looked into what it was that I was looking at. It wasn’t until the internet happened that discovering the source of the look was . . . easier. I had tried various ways to mimic the look of wet plate with film and then digital, and even though I came close I could never get it completely, so I decided to get dirty and do it for real. It wasn’t as huge a leap as you might suppose. The first fifteen years of my career were film and darkroom. I used to shoot large format (4×5) frequently for clients, mostly food and interiors, but I also did a lot of portraits so working with big cameras wasn’t new ground and neither was the darkroom and chemistry. When digital cameras rolled out I was fascinated like everyone else, and I still use digital a lot, but I love the work flow of large format and it provokes a different kind of participation from the people I photograph than does digital photography. That is, in part, I think, because there is no novelty in digital photographs—in photos of people anymore. There was a time when being photographed, and particularly being photographed by a photographer, was a rare experience. These days, people are photographing themselves and their friends ad nauseam; a tsunami-like flood of people photos fills the internet. When people sit in front of a vintage 8×10 field camera, it’s a new experience and that experience is only heightened by watching the image of themselves develop on a piece of glass minutes later, and that makes being photographed fresh again.
But also, I love making things. With a digital camera you take a photo, and even if you manipulate it extensively with software, there is still a secondhandedness to it that leaves me feeling disconnected from the image. With wet plate you make a photo. I cut the glass, dress it, clean it. I mix the chemicals from scratch, I pour them on the plate by hand. I have to see the photo in my head completely. It takes about twenty minutes to make a plate from start to finish, so making revisions in subsequent exposures can take hours. Light meters don’t work well for wet plate because there are so many variables in the process that affect exposure and contrast, so there is a certain amount of experience and instinct that comes into play . . . which means my wet plate photos are my photos, not a photo that came as result of taking hundreds of images, selecting the best, then modifying it with software to make something good. Not that there is anything necessarily inferior about digital images. A good image is good no matter what the medium used to make it. Oil/acrylic/watercolor, bronze/wood/marble, cello/guitar/French horn . . . doesn’t matter, good is good (and that’s a matter of opinion). It’s a personal thing for me. I like wet plate because I like the process—it’s fun! I enjoy the conceit that my wet plate images would be just as successful (or not) if I had shot them digitally. Content trumps process.
This method of photography produces images that are a mirror image of reality. Why don’t you flip them back digitally? Just because that interrupts the analog workflow from lens to print? And do you find that presenting mirror images changes the impact of the art to those who can recognize that?
I don’t flip the images back (lateral correction) when I make digital files because I feel like it would be dishonest. Also, if someone is viewing the original and a print side by side, the correction is obvious. The digital files and print reproductions of my wet plate are unaltered scans, i.e., there’s no retouching or editing. When I make the scans I try and reproduce the plate in digital format as close to the look of the original as possible.
I think if photography mirrors reality, then the mirror is a fun house mirror. I use photography to distort or cherry pick from reality, I use it to show selective bits of people that I think tells their story, or, in the case of the narrative portraits I do, I cherry pick to tell a story or make a statement. “The Virgin” is the most obvious example of that. That said, I’m not really bent out of shape if people don’t get from my photos what I had intended to convey so long as they get something.
What are the challenges of this type of production?
It’s time consuming, expensive, and stinky, but those elements are completely offset by the inherent beauty of the process. There is a randomness that comes with hand making each emulsion—even if I could photograph the same scene exactly, each subsequent photo would look different because of the work flow. It’s also difficult to find people to photograph that are comfortable with a process that can’t be retouched. A lot of people are keen to be photographed but are obviously disappointed once they are—their expectations victimized by the Photoshop/Instagram filter age.
When working with wet plate collodion techniques, the chemical process is so powerful and so distinctive that its results dominate the aesthetics of the work. How do you set yourself apart from other artists working in the same medium?
When wet plate images are reproduced (digitally—on screen, or in print) I think they actually lose the effect that truly sets them apart from, say, an Instagram filter. A wet plate image on a glass or tin plate has a depth that is almost three-dimensional. The images are rich and luxurious, the plate is heavy. The look of the chemical process, especially by those practitioners like myself who create imperfect and flawed emulsions intentionally, is unique, but I consider it a novelty effect. The true aesthetic power of the image has to come from the content; a photograph should be more than the sum of its gimmicks. If my wet plate photographs are distinctive from other wet plate practitioners it’s because I photograph the themes and people that speak to me—my photos are (I hope) an expression of my personality and are as unique as they can be because of that.
Why do you create? And why create this sort of work?
I love making things, and in hindsight I always have. I create because—I will borrow this quote from Calvin (thank you Bill Watterson)—I must obey the inscrutable exhortations of my soul. There is nothing more satisfying than creating; it’s my drug of choice. There is no comparison between the satisfaction and enjoyment of listening to a thousand great songs and writing one of your own. I create the kind of work I do because of who I am, I suppose; the total of all my experiences and genetic predispositions squeezed out through an idea into an image like Play-Doh from an extruder.
Significant credit for the eeriness of many of your photographs must go to your girlfriend, artist Liz Dungate, who created these unsettling masks. Can you tell us about that?
Liz and I worked together before we became together. She is so much a part of my creative process now, I can’t imagine not working with her. Even when I am shooting on my own or with other creatives, she is there, like my creative conscience, my Jiminy Cricket of art. That said, we are creatively independent of each other, and each of us is able to give and take direction—normally decided by whose initial concept it was for the project we are collaborating on—and I think that’s one of the reasons our collaborations work so well. In the case of the masks, she made them for her own reasons, I just hijacked them! They spoke to me in a way that may not have been what her intention was, but she was cool enough to let me do what I did.
Can you name some of your influences?
The aforementioned Bill Watterson, the Coen Brothers, Steve Martin, Colin James, Rush (band), Thomas Paine, Tolkien, Poalo Roversi, Edward Steichen, Bill Carmen, Jack Conte, Ingres, Renoir, Rembrandt, Wide Mouth Mason, Peter Gabriel. . . anyone who exhibits a degree of lateral thinking and/or originality.
Do you draw ideas from fiction?
I don’t draw directly from fiction, but I think am influenced by fiction because of the creative minds behind it. I like storytellers who create worlds from scratch, or at least rework reality with such a twist that the imagination they exhibit in doing so becomes a taste in my mouth. So, for example, Tolkien on the one hand (the whole creation of Middle Earth is a staggering feat of imagination—you have to have read The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales as well as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to really grasp the scope of it ) and Iain Banks on the other. If I take ideas away from a story, it’s a mood or setting, a concept or theme.
Do you have a life philosophy?
When I was young, about ten I think, my best friend’s very much older brother said to me, “you only go ‘round once.” Since then I have added: never harm or intend to do harm to another person or their property, as well as: Make Stuff.
What keeps you awake at night?
Usually the neighbors! Seriously though, if I am making things I sleep well. Plus, although I am a long, long, way from being rich by Canadian standards, in a global perspective I am living a life of luxury—a roof, good food, good health, a safe and beautiful city, a perfect girlfriend, and all the opportunity to create photos that’s possible (short of the opportunities afforded by being rich by Canadian standards). I have no right not to sleep well.
Do you have any other career interests?
I’m mulling over flight school.
What are you working on right now?
We moved out of our studio at the beginning of April, and we are in the long drawn out process of building a studio. In the mean time I am trying to convert some of the basement into a darkroom so my time is being consumed by sawdust and screws. Not that I’m complaining, really—I like making stuff, but I need to get back to shooting soon. It’s a little bit like the feeling of two cups of coffee and a two-hour car trip—a sense of urgency develops.
What is your dream project?
I dream about making photos that speak louder than the ones I have already made. I dream of creative fearlessness.
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