An Interview with SRO Gallery Artist, Heather F. Wetzel

Salvage VI 2012 Ferrotype 3x3 Wet-plate collodion photogenic drawing on recycled and japanned can lid

Salvage VI
Wet-plate collodion photogenic drawing on recycled and japanned can lid

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.

Salvage 2012 Installation detail

Installation detail

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.


Salvage 2012 Installation detail

Installation detail

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.

Salvage 2012 Installation on a pedestal, detail.

Installation on a pedestal, detail.

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.

Salvage I 2012 Ferrotype 3x3 Wet-plate collodion photogenic drawing on recycled and japanned can lid

Salvage I
Wet-plate collodion photogenic drawing on recycled and japanned can lid

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.

Salvage XX 2012 Ferrotype 3x3 Wet-plate collodion photogenic drawing on recycled and japanned can lid

Salvage XX
Wet-plate collodion photogenic drawing on recycled and japanned can lid

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.

Salvage 2012 Instllation view

Instllation view

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,

Photographic Image and Text at the Crossroads of Imagination


In 2013 the SRO Photo Gallery re-starts the conversation around the photographic in art by interviewing collaborating artists Nicholas Pierce, a senior creative writing major, and J. Eric Simpson, a senior studio art major, about their artwork installation currently included in Harbinger 2013: Art in Publication, an exhibition of artworks selected for publication in this year’s Harbinger, Texas Tech’s student journal of literature and art. The exhibition is on view in the Landmark Arts Studio Gallery through February 10th.

In this collaboration, Simpson’s photographic selections, which are very intentionally cropped out of vintage vernacular photographs (mostly gelatin silver prints from the 1890s through the early 20th century), are paired with Pierce’s “daily poems” which are manually typed on vintage paper.  Pierce and Simpson were given the same set of questions and asked to answer them independently, without consulting with each other.  What follows are their answers edited into a mostly univocal reply – Simpson’s responses shown in blue; Pierce’s in green. As with their artistic collaboration, Pierce and Simpson each contribute facets of the replies as published below.

Nov 12, 2012

Give us a brief overview of how the collaboration started.

Collaboration between [us] was a long time coming, at least a year ago. It might have begun over an interest in conversation and dialogue from which we wanted to create by various means. In all honesty I believe we started collaborating the day we met, throwing ideas around and such, discussing the relationship between image and text. It began as a collaborative film, using Eric’s photography and my writing. However, it wasn’t until the end of last semester after Nick’s [Land Arts of the American West] trip through the southwestern part of the country that the conversation really picked up.  We started working seriously on this project. Nick started typing out daily poems, which in their most rudimentary sense, focus on the unedited, raw, and moment driven act of expressing thoughts through words.  During this time, I began taking vintage photographs and cropping them to reveal/create new images.  It didn’t take long before [we] started to pair the two together.  It was then that we realized that we had been creating each of these components for a much larger dialogue. I suppose, in a sense, it hasn’t changed much.

Please state, in one sentence if possible, what this art praxis strives to address or achieve.

We’re exploring memory and creation. We use archaic materials—a typewriter, worn paper, old photographs, etc.—to get at new ideas, new metaphors. There’s a diarist quality to the project as well, in that I write a poem a day, edit it very little, and then date that poem. When Eric manipulates a photograph, it’s final. We won’t find another like it, at least not exactly. The same could be said of the paper I am using, for no two pages age alike. In other words, even a reproduction of our work would be an original. I am not sure that [we] have figured out what we are striving to do with these works as of yet. 

Inhale and Exhale

An initial impression is that neither the photographic elements work to “illustrate” the text, nor does the poetry serve to “describe” the photographic image.  Please comment on this observation.

The Urn

Pewter queen of a plastic garden. You:
heaven’s container, little pot of oblivion.
Not less because you are empty;
the body only a room
away from the strangers
filling the pews’ blank spaces.
                                       [Jan 15, 2013]

There would be no sense in pairing a photograph of an urn with this poem; it would be superfluous, uninteresting and un-complicating. It seems that to “illustrate” would be a basic mimetic regurgitation of what “should be” as far as text to image goes.  A sort of one to one if you will.  In other words, this thing points to that thing or this thing supports that thing.  Nick and I are not interested in this.  What we want to do is create a conversation which exists on multiple levels, multiple readings and multiple interpretations.  On the other hand, if the poem was paired with, say, a photograph of the shell of a car after an accident, things begin to get interesting. The car then too becomes a sort of urn, and the narrative is thus expanded. In order to do this we are exploring the connections and the contradictions between text and image and pairing them up so that the work becomes more dynamic in terms of viewer involvement.  Of course, with this project, we’re working with found photographs from a time period when portraits were largely popular, so finding a photograph of a car accident is unlikely. Then again, who knows what we’ll find? It could be that Eric and I come across a photograph of an airplane and think it a perfect fit for the poem. It could be that Eric crops a photograph and something new—something that we didn’t see in the photograph before—appears; is imaged. When this is done, the image and the text may not correspond on a literal level.  And that’s one of the best parts about this project—the surprise.


In which ways do you feel the poems affect the way the photographs are comprehended/experienced, and visa versa?

I suppose you can look at it somewhat like a diptych: when one image, be it a photograph or a poem, is paired with another image; both components work to question the other.  Things change, metaphors are created or extended; and there can be, often are, in each poem and in each photograph multiple images. [As] said before, they are not necessarily pointing towards one another, but they are definitely aware to their relationship with one another. To some extent I would say that they hold the other accountable for what might be implied to the viewer.  In other words, the poems work to imply one thing while the photographs might work to imply another, sometimes these are the same thing, sometimes they aren’t.

Another observation is that very specific “material” choices are being made – actual vintage photographs rather than color copies or inkjet prints from scans and manually typed poems on aged paper rather than laser printouts on regular (newer) paper. Please comment on how these material selections and decisions are important or necessary to the “work’s work.”

The reason we do not use color copies or inkjet prints is because of an interest in the “unique,” the un-reproducible, the one of a kind. This interest may have stemmed from growing up with things like Walmart and digital cameras, but I can’t be certain.  What I do know is that we want to create an object that is tactile and tangible, but is not so for its own sake.  Sometimes—and I think this is when the work is at its strongest—the material becomes itself an image, contributing to the images of the poem and/or photograph. As a result, [we] are giving new life to the discarded or once lived materials and are deeply involved in what sorts of images can be created by virtue of this. 

Dec 5, 2012

To some extent, the material choices for the works could be thought of as “nostalgic”. Please comment.

I don’t find that “nostalgic” is a good word to use. Nostalgia’s often viewed in a negative light. Sixty years ago it was even considered a disease. I wouldn’t go so far as to call our work nostalgic, but that certainly is an element of it. It seems to imply that we are trying to create something that mimics an older time. This is not the case.  Eric and I are enamored with the aesthetic quality of some old photographs and old papers. But by dating each of our works, by cropping the photographs rather than trying to recreate their appearance with old or new technologies, we absolve from ever tricking our audience into believing they are looking at something not from our time. What we are trying to do is take something from another time and crop or frame the things that interest us in order to look at them through a contemporary lens. There is also an inherent irony to dating old pages. We live in the information age. Books are disappearing, quickly. By doing this I find that we are expanding the conceptual dialogue that we want to have.  So a different word would be better, but I’m not sure I know what that word is. 

One final question about this work: give me your thoughts about “images” in this work.

Through the process of creating these works it has become quite obvious that words construct or compose an “image” just as gelatin silver might.  You could look at one of Eric’s photographs, paired with a poem of mine, as a continuation of the narrative established in the text, another stanza if you will; and vice versa. Then again, maybe they don’t do this at all; maybe it’s the viewer who constructs the image.  I don’t really know; regardless, I find it interesting. Our work is in constant conversation.