Conversation With Abelardo Morell and Peter Essick

Conversations is an ongoing series where photographers, editors, and curators talk about concepts in photography as well as recent projects.

In this edition of Conversations, photographers Abelardo Morell and Peter Essick each discuss their personal approach to photographing in National Parks. The two are exploring contemporary versions of early photographic processes in order to reenvision vistas that are so familiar they have become part of public consciousness, Morell using a camera obscura and Essick through a wet-plate collodion process.

PETER ESSICK: I’ve just proposed a story, it would tie in with this centennial of the National Park Service, to photograph the first 12 parks using the wet-plate collodion technique.

ABELARDO MORELL: So Yellowstone and then Yosemite?

PETER: Yeah. And then there are a few surprises: Sequoia, Mount Rainier, Crater Lake, Wind Cave, which I had hardly even heard of, and then Mesa Verde, Glacier, Rocky Mountain, Lassen, and then the two Hawaiian parks, Haleakala and Hawai’i Volcanoes. It’s sort of interesting why those were the first ones.

ABELARDO: As I understand it, Yellowstone was visited by William Henry Jackson in some expedition. He was one of the artists. And Thomas Moran was the other artist. Jackson made wonderful pictures of Yellowstone, which had never really been seen before, and the way I also understand it is that eventually Congress got to see some of these images. I think it must have been a mindblower, like “Holy God, we need to save those.”

PETER: Yeah, in 1871. Jackson was with the U.S. Geological Survey in the Hayden Expedition.

ABELARDO: That sounds correct. Yep.

PETER: As part of this project, the Geographic kind of gave me a stipend to go out and to do some of the parks. I went to Yellowstone, and they actually have [Jackson’s] camera out there, and they have the albumen prints that he made for the survey, which is kind of neat to see. That was sort of the first example of an environmental activism with the photography [by William Henry Jackson] and the paintings by Thomas Moran.

ABELARDO: Thomas Moran’s paintings, I just find them so beautiful and sort of modern in a way. When I went to Yellowstone to photograph, I had Jackson and Moran in mind because it’s a little like, “Oh, it still looks like that.” Like time hasn’t really passed, you know?

PETER: Yeah. It’s not pristine, obviously, like it was when they saw it, but it’s still a really neat place. I find myself trying to get that balance [of past and present], especially with the wet-plate. How to sort of evoke this whole time frame that it has gone through. And that’s why I was initially interested in the wet-plate collodion, because it kind of does bring you back just automatically to that era.

ABELARDO: What size [glass] plates are you using?

PETER: 4’’-by-5’’

ABELARDO: Oh, okay. Not what [Timothy H.] O’Sullivan and [Carleton] Watkins used.

PETER: Watkins, yeah. He used a mammoth plate, the 18’’-by-22.’’

ABELARDO: Amazing. I mean, he was like a mad man, you know, climbing mountains in Yosemite [with mammoth plates], and they’re still some of the most beautiful photographic prints I’ve ever seen. He’s one of my heroes, Watkins. It was amazing work—amazing worlds that he was seeing. Somehow, photographically, he just knew where to stand. Now it’s easy for tourists. It’s like, “Okay, stand here, and you’ll get the picture.” But then, you sort of had to find it.

PETER: Yeah. He has that one picture called Best General View.

ABELARDO: Yeah, that’s right. That’s a very funny title. As much as I like Ansel Adams, which I do, but a lot of the Adams work was really a byproduct of Watkins, I think. I think he was very much inspired by that 19th century pioneering work, and he acknowledged it, of course.

PETER: Mm-hmm. I’m not using that 75-pound camera. He took six horses from San Francisco with 2,000 pounds of equipment on his first expedition. He made a hundred glass plates, so it’s quite an amazing thing.

ABELARDO: Quite amazing, quite amazing. Yeah.

PETER: I am using the same chemistry as Watkins, basically. One thing that’s kind of interesting now is that you can scan the plates and make digital negatives and still make the albumen prints from the digital negatives.

ABELARDO: So it’s cheating a little bit.

PETER: Yeah.

ABELARDO: I switched to digital in 2005. Mostly because my exposures with camera obscura work were as long as eight hours, which was sort of a pain. And then when I converted the idea to using the tent on the landscape, those exposures were about five hours with film. And I don’t have to tell you, five hours in the middle of hot desert . . . So then I switched to a Phase One back. Now I have the 60-megapixel one, but the exposures went from five hours to four minutes, which is really nice to be able to also see right away what you’ve got. [In the past] I’d film, come back to Boston, and then look at it and go, “Oh, gee, I didn’t focus that too well.”

PETER: Yeah. I know some people that I’ve met, even with the wet-plate, they’re really into the reenacting. They try and do everything right to the period and style, and that’s kind of admirable. But I don’t know, I’ve never found that appealing. I’ve been trying to do like a journalistic-type story of, you know.

ABELARDO: Yeah. Sometimes I give talks, and people say, “Oh, you’ve sold to the devil. You’re not using film anymore.” You know, the purists. I can imagine Watkins on some mountain coating his glass plates with collodion and then someone coming to him and saying, “Guess what I have with me? I have some dry plates, you can get them ready in San Francisco, and you can shoot them anytime you want.” Is his response going to be, “No, I’m an artist,” or is it, “Give it to me”? I think the answer would be, “Give it to me.”

PETER: Well, see we went through that. A lot of the Geographic photographers, maybe seven or eight years ago, wanted to stick to shooting Kodachrome and really felt that that was their artistic look. And it just became apparent that digital had so many advantages for being out in the field and seeing what you’re getting. And then the quality was getting better and better. And so I kind of went early on, sort of switched to digital and really liked it.

ABELARDO: I also think that some people confuse digital with manipulating the work so much that it’s a lie. In fact, you and I used the digital technology in a very straight way. It’s not about putting, you know, unicorns flying in the sky, which is what people think. People think, “Oh, it’s all made up. There was no lion mountain there,” you know, “The sky didn’t look like that.” And it’s the opposite of how I think that the two of us work. We just picked another process of recording reality.

PETER: Yeah. And I have a hard time with that. I just have, through and through, a journalistic mindset, and, you know, beyond just a little burning and dodging and things like that, I just don’t find that really appealing.

ABELARDO: Yeah. Well, I’m also getting older, so I don’t have the same amount of time, you know, spending five hours in a tent. No thanks.

PETER: The other thing about wet-plate collodion that’s odd is you’re almost going back. Going from digital back to the wet-plate and the chemicals, you’re putting these limits on yourself. It takes you 15 minutes to stop the car and get all the chemicals ready to go. So you have to plan all those things, and then in some ways, you’re missing things that you could have gotten technically with the digital camera. But there is something about it, that limiting thing. It also forces you to focus in because you only have one picture to get.

ABELARDO: I like a philosopher named Kierkegaard who said something like, “The more you limit yourself, the more inventive your mind becomes.” There’s something about that.

PETER: That’s perfect, yeah. That’s a perfect thing for wet-plates because it is limiting.

ABELARDO: Well if you have too many choices then it becomes kind of boring.
I remember giving a talk in Texas, and someone asked me why do I put a tent in the landscape, which takes about three hours to set up and make a picture. And why don’t I just take a picture of whatever I want and then take a picture of the ground and just sandwich them together at home. And I said something like, “Well, you know, lady, I’m interested in the truth.” And working hard to achieve it puts you in a certain mindset that I think just receives the information in a different way. And it’s important that I feel like I earn it.

PETER: Mm-hmm.

ABELARDO: Anyway, how boring would it be if I could just project the Taj Mahal in Texas if I wanted to digitally? That would be so boring. I would be like “Who cares?” So I think the wet-plate and where I work with the tent it’s sort of a limiting factor, and it puts us a little bit having a foot in the 19th century. I think maybe as a homage to that hard work. I mean, my daughter is always taking pictures of herself with a phone, and it’s like—Are those pictures going to last? I don’t think so.

PETER: Yeah, not in the same way.

ABELARDO: I set up a tent that has a periscope and basically it projects the landscape that’s nearby onto the ground—I think the reason I made that part of the way I work, is that it’s almost impossible, I think, to make a picture of Old Faithful now that stands the test of time. There are a billion pictures of that, beautiful pictures, but it’s hard to be genuine, original with some of these landscapes that are so iconic. I wanted to re-vision, reimagine how some of these landscapes could be seen through another filter.

So I think that some of the pictures I’ve been making in the West are of these well-known sites that somehow can be seen again, maybe rediscovered with fresh eyes. And that’s always the way I think. I don’t want to make a picture that Peter has made or Ansel has made. I think it’s sort of important to give it a flavor, a patina of some new version of the old truth.

PETER: Yeah. And I think that’s similar to what I was trying to do with the wet-plate. It is sort of like a “Back to the Future” approach. You know, the list of the 12 parks, most of them are very well photographed. And they’re being photographed hundreds and thousands of times every day, so it’s hard, from a creative perspective, to do something different. And so that was one idea: to use the process of the people who saw them first. One idea I had was, well if William Henry Jackson would have come back today and was photographing, what would he find interesting? And then how could I, just in knowing about his work, sort of reinterpret through that process what’s going on today? It’s just an avenue for me to try and see the parks through a different perspective.

And a lot of what we were talking about with the limitations it puts on you, that also forces you to try and really think about what you can do that would be different.

ABELARDO: Yeah, because again, that kind of limitation makes your brain rework the subject in different ways. It engages you with the subject in an unusual way that I think makes you want to pay better attention.

PETER: Understand it more, I think. Yeah.

ABELARDO: You know, it’s like some artists I know—sometimes they, instead of drawing with their right hand, they draw with their left hand just to see how the clumsiness and the hard way of doing it teaches you something. Even though it’s not as good as the right hand, it’s got new potentials.

PETER: Mm-hmm.

ABELARDO: I think what you and I are doing, is that we’re doing things with our left hand.

PETER: It’s a more raw feeling. There’s something about these wet-plates—they’re imperfect, you know, but you’re sort of celebrating that. They’re raw, and it has a soulfulness. I think the best landscape pictures are ones that have some feeling to them or emotion to them in the same way that a portrait does.

ABELARDO: Exactly. Something specific about a moment.

PETER: Mm-hmm. Next time, we’ll meet—hopefully, we can meet in person, I guess.

ABELARDO: Yeah, maybe in some park somewhere.

PETER: If I see somebody with a tent and a little periscope, I’ll just . . .

ABELARDO: If I see somebody with a little tent coating some plates . . . we’ll both have to . . . You must use a tent, right?

PETER: Well, I use a little portable dark box. It kind of looks like a suitcase and it opens up, and it’s on a tripod, and it has a little shroud that goes over it.

ABELARDO: It sounds like something out of “Breaking Bad.”
All right. Pleasure to talk to you, Peter.

PETER: Yes. Same here, Abe. Very good. I hope we meet sometime in the future.

ABELARDO: Absolutely. Take care. Bye-bye.

Peter Essick’s monograph, The Ansel Adams Wilderness, was published in April 2014. Essick is the editor for one of April’s Your Shot Assignments, Nature in Black and White. To see more of Essick’s work visit his website and follow him on Instagram.

Abelardo Morell’s photographs of America’s parks were featured in the October 2103 issue. To hear more about Abelardo Morell’s process, check out his video portrait on Proof. To see more of Morell’s work, visit his website.

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