Heather Wetzel’s series of ferrotypes entitled Salvage is created using pieces of recycled aluminum cans. The archaic technology of the ferrotyping process suggests a history created around the objects she makes, and references the rich history of the photographic medium. Wetzel prefers “a slower pace, where one takes time to notice and appreciate the little things, and with that mindfulness, to craft an image that documents the often unnoticed details of one’s surroundings.”
Salvage will be on display until March 10, 2013, in the SRO Photo Gallery.
In your artist statement, you write “I work predominantly with antiquated processes, but am also interested in how these methods complement digital technologies.” Can you please give specific examples of the way you see these tintypes “complement[ing] digital technologies?”
That particular passage in my statement refers to my working methods in general. Not every body of work I create incorporates both antiquated processes and digital technologies in the making of the work. Obviously, digital technologies come into play in every case when it comes to documenting what has been done. In this case, these are unique objects that cannot be duplicated. Even if I try to make another just like the one before it, there will be differences in the lid itself, the japanned surface, image composition, tonality, and even subtle coloring. Therefore, in a practical sense, the digital documentation of these objects allows for records to be kept of objects created, and for more people to be able to see them via my website.
However, another body of work, Mapping|Missing|Mending Memory does incorporate the symbiotic use of historic photographic processes and digital processes. In creating those images, I scanned old family slides, digitally altered them so they would print more effectively with wet-plate collodion using the enlarger, and created new transparencies to be used in making the fragmented glass images. [Images from Mapping|Missing|Mending Memory, can be found here.]
Additionally, there are two projects I am currently working on that also incorporate antiquated processes with digital technologies. One is titled Impractical Library and makes use of discarded books that no longer hold any monetary value and found vernacular photographs, which will be altered more significantly than what was done in Mapping|Missing|Mending. The second project is an artist book that also makes use of found vernacular image and text, digital technologies, and will be printed using photo polymer plates and bound by hand.
What draws you to this process of wet plate collodion?
I have always been drawn to working with processes that engage many of the senses. Wet plate does that. It engages sight, smell, touch, and sound (I do, however, discourage the use of taste here, some things are just not meant to be ingested.) I also like to be in control of the materials I use and labor-intensive processes are particularly satisfying. Wet plate collodion covers all of these bases – plus, it allows me to feel a little bit like a mad scientist working in my lab.
Specifically, the preparation of the image surface, whether it is glass or metal that I decide to use, requires a great deal of labor. In the case of these ferrotypes, the lids must first be shaped and cleaned before they can be japanned. The making of the japanning solution (the dark lacquer that coats the metal) and the application of it is a time consuming process. The lids must be very clean, the solution applied evenly, allowed to dry, and then baked before applying subsequent coats until the desired density is achieved. I mix all the chemicals myself, and control exposure, development, and fixing by sight. Knowing how the chemicals work allows me greater control in development, tonal quality, subtle colors and hues, as well as contrast, allowing me to create the appearance of different atmospheric conditions in these alternate environments.
Ultimately, there is a certain dimensionality to the finished image that is also particularly satisfying – it’s not just an image, it is an object with depth, dimension, tactility, and even, for a time, scent. Other photographic processes just don’t hold this kind of magic for me.
How do you select the plant material featured in these ferrotypes? Do they represent a specific place?
The plant material does not represent any specific place and is meant to be ubiquitous. They are samples I have collected from various places I have lived in the past several years, including Pennsylvania, New York, Iowa, and Ohio, as well as a few other places, such as Illinois and North Carolina. I collect clippings of cultivated plant species as well as weeds and grasses that I am not able to identify. When choosing a particular specimen, I am looking at the lines and gestures in the stems, as well as how dense it is. There needs to be a certain amount of translucency, or delicateness about the plant so that it will create an interesting drawing when I construct my compositions under the enlarger.
What is it about recycled tin can lids that is important to your work?
Recycling is an important part of my life and since I work so often with wet-plate collodion, it seemed a logical and resourceful use of a material that is an occasional by-product of my grocery shopping. I see a connection between the idea of conserving our resources and the impact that can have on the planet. Right now, we seem to be in a perilous state, hanging in the balance perhaps. Some say there is time to fix the damage we have done, others say it is too late. Like plants that are able to gain a hold in the most unlikely of places, I prefer to hope that the planet can heal and continue to sustain us if we cultivate a sensitivity to how our individual actions can cumulatively affect change. The plant material depicted in these circular plates, or little worlds, symbolically suggests that potential growth and regeneration is possible on a larger scale.
Speaking of cumulative affects, I had been saving can lids for over a year before I started making the images in 2012. At first, it was a sole endeavor, where I was the only one saving the tops and when possible, the bottoms from cans I had used. Then it developed into more of a community effort with friends, family, colleagues, and students saving their lids and contributing to my cause. Then, this past summer when I was teaching a copper plate photogravure class at Penland School of Crafts, the entire kitchen staff and work-study students joined in my efforts and saved every can lid, top and bottom that session supplying me with quite an abundance of the 6” lids to work with. I think this aspect of Salvage is pretty incredible too – one might call it collaborative in a sense. But I love that others are supportive and want to be a part of this and save their recycling for me to transform into something more. A few lids from one person, a couple more from someone else – these all added up and enabled me to put together a couple hundred images to date for these installations.
You say that in keeping these pieces in a circular format “these photogenic drawings become little worlds.” How would you respond to my observation of seeing Salvage as viewing specimens under a microscope?
I would say that is a valid interpretation. I actually like that interpretation especially when thinking about how they do in fact operate on both the macro and micro levels. We have a multifaceted understanding of the world we live in, we see things in a larger perspective and simultaneously understand life functions on a microscopic level as well, and that these pieces can be seen as both, maybe even simultaneously, is an interesting thought.
Are there any further observations and comments about your work that we didn’t cover, and you would like to include?
Many times, we don’t take the time to slow down and observe the world around us, the small details such as the patterns created by the light through leaves, or stalks of grass. As a society, we have become so focused on new technologies and being more productive, earning more money, buying more things, that we often forget to observe and engage with the natural world that sustains us. It is my hope that these little worlds, regardless of whether you see them as macro or micro specimens, will remind us to take time for these simple observations.
Heather Wetzel teaches at Ohio State University, Columbus. She holds an MFA from SUNY Brockport, Rochester, NY, and an MAH from Arcadia University, Glenside, PA.
You can find more of her work at her website, http://heatherfwetzel.com.