Barret Oliver lives in Los Angeles where he works as a photographer and printer and is known for his use of nineteenth century processes. His print work has been featured in gallery and museum exhibitions, publications and motion pictures. We spoke about his close collaborations with artists, the joys and challenges of using historic processes to create hand made prints, and why he believes these techniques remain relevant today.
“We forget that photographs are objects as well, and that the way you make something, the materials and the techniques, often have an influence on its meaning.”
Paula: You specialize in antique photographic processes. Is that the correct way of talking about your work?
Barret: I use historic techniques, basically pre-industrial technologies. There's a point somewhere between 1885 and the turn of the century when industrially produced photographic materials become readily available, and they're manufactured in factories. They're industrially made and commercially sold. Before that, everything was made pretty much by the photographer or by small shops by hand. Those are relatively, and I use that word loosely, relatively easy to do on a small scale in a studio. The industrial stuff, like roll film, it's just impossible to do in a studio.
Paula: It's things that are handmade.
Barret: That's right.
Paula: Is that what draws you to it? Is it the craftsmanship? Why did you decide to focus on this?
Barret: Well, it's actually a combination of things. I first started getting interested in it because I became, what we used to a call, a professional photographer right at the time big companies began discontinuing films and papers. Around 2005, I realized that it was going to be impossible to get really good materials at some point in the near future, and digital materials really hadn't caught up yet, so there was no alternative. You could go out and you could spend $40,000 on a good digital camera, but that wasn't a real alternative because it was too expensive to convert a whole shop like that. You would have to turn yourself into a photo lab to do something on a small scale in a darkroom. I started looking at ways to make things from scratch, and it started just with making my own developers from scratch and stuff like that. That led to making paper which led to doing collodion film. It was an evolutionary process, not something I particularly set out to do.
I'm also just a sucker for a challenge and because I have a professional photography background, I was really interested in getting things precise and accurate and repeatable, so if someone asks you to make five copies of something, they all look the same. That's really hard to do when you're making things by hand.
It was that technological challenge that sucked me in, how do you do that - so that you're making something by hand, but the things you're producing are pretty consistent? Of course, it's impossible to be completely consistent, just like if you buy a piece of handmade furniture, you expect the lines aren’t going to be perfectly straight, but for a craftsperson there's a line below where something is just unacceptable to hand to a client.
Paula: There has to be a certain level of command over the process, but also some of those variations are part of what make it special, no?
Barret: Yes, and I like to remind people that these are handmade. If you want it to look like it came out of a machine, go get a machine to make it. Some people don't like the variations and the idiosyncrasies of handmade stuff, and they have an alternative.
Paula: You do a lot of artist collaborations.
Barret: Right. The publishing studio, The ƒ/Ø Project, is all collaborations. The goal of that is to offer these tools to artists who, simply for practical reasons, wouldn't have the opportunity to learn all these techniques. It’s just like what a lithography shop does for painters; you wouldn't expect every painter to have a lithography studio and learn lithography. The tools I offer, the different printing techniques, for me that occupies the same position for the photographer.
Paula: Is there a common reason that an artist seeks out your help or your collaboration? How do you match the technology with the piece?
Barret: It really depends on the person and the project and involves a conversation where I try to get into the mind of the person and understand their objective for making art in the first place. I can then offer them something that I think might be useful. Oftentimes, I'll make some test prints for them to respond to. That process can go on for a long time, and can change wildly over the course of that conversation. Most of the time, the first idea doesn't work, it just doesn't spark the right combination of image, printmaking technique, object-ness, or whatever. That whole conversation is really about figuring out the best way to manifest what the artist is trying to say.
For example, with Broomberg & Chanarin, we started talking about four years ago about doing albumen prints because they're really interested in the history of the medium. Albumen is the dominant printing process from the 19th Century. Most of the pictures you see from the 19th Century are printed in albumen, and when you see an albumen print, it just looks like history. So, we did a bunch of tests, and it just didn't work.
Paula: Why? What didn't work about it?
Barret: The projects they were working on at the time weren't right for that technique. Sometimes it just looks wrong. You think something might look great printed one way, and it just looks weird.
Paula: It didn't match the vision somehow?
Barret: Yeah. I think conceptually, the work they were making at that time just didn't fit. Then as the conversation continued to evolve, they were working on this facial recognition surveillance project, and I thought immediately about doing it with carbon printing. The surface has a very strange, almost void feeling to it because it's got a matte texture. It looks like those faces are coming out of nothing. That's an effect you couldn't get with normal photographic printmaking materials like a gelatin or inkjet print.
Also, there's this contradiction in terms of the fact that it's a handmade object where every step of the process is done by a person touching things. That's the object, that's the print, but they are computer generated images so there's no film negative. There isn't even a single file from a digital camera because computer algorithms are constructing these faces.
Paula: So in this case, the textural quality and the depth of black matches the feeling that they wanted to evoke?
Barret: Exactly. We did a lot of versions of this, test prints. We did a version with a white background, and it made it look like a collage - it just didn't work. I actually thought it was going to be better than the black background, but when you got the print at the end of the process, it looked like someone cut a head out and stuck it on a piece of paper. Then we also tried glossy versions of both the black and the white, and matte versions of both the black and the white. Out of those four different combinations, we thought the black had the most void quality to it, so the face is emerging out of nothing, out of nothingness. That just seemed to have the most impact.
Paula: So it’s a lot of experimentation.
Barret: Yes. A lot. With them it was really interesting because there's two of them, so it's even more of a conversation. They're talking to each other while they're talking to me, and I'm talking to each one of them. It was like a round table.
Paula: How many different types of processes do you use?
Barret: I don't know that I can give you a really good answer because a lot of the stuff I do is experimental. There might be a particular technique that's done as a starting point, but you play around with the possibilities of that material to get something totally different.
A few years ago I produced some pieces for Mel Bochner, and he wanted to make prints on mirrors, so I thought about it, and I thought the best way to do it would be to make a collodion ambrotype on the mirror surface, because that's normally done on glass. But an ambrotype has a white image on it, so that didn't work because you couldn't really see the image with the reflection. I had to figure out how to make it black. It wasn't a terribly difficult challenge, it was pretty obvious. I went to the formulas for making lantern slides, and adapted a couple of things to make it work. I don't think anyone's done that before; that's something I had to make up. An ambrotype lantern slide, I've never seen anyone do that.
That's the kind of thing, if you have a good understanding of the whole history of that technology, you can pluck pieces from here and there to do things that have never been done before. That's one of the reasons I like working with a wide array of artists who have different concerns. Some people are more concerned with the image, some people are more concerned with the aesthetic qualities, some people are more concerned with conceptual issues. Each one of those artists demands a different approach.
Another example, Alyson Shotz and I have been talking for a few years, and I really liked her work, so I asked her if she wanted to do something with me. She comes from a sculpture background, she's not a photographer. I first noticed her several years ago, she does this work with strings and pins and intricate patterns. They look like drawings from a distance, but when you get up close, you can see that they're objects. She's mostly known for these room sized sculptures of industrial materials that take on a life of their own at that scale.
So I just asked her, "Hey, I don't know if you've ever done anything with photography, but I'd love to work with you.” She said she had a basic understanding and had spent some time in a dark room. This was very helpful. We talked for a while and went through three or four things that turned out not to be very fruitful. Then, she happened to be in town for something else and I asked her if she could stay a couple extra days and work in the studio with me. We just started experimenting. Through that process of being in the studio together we found something that was both interesting as an object and an image, and also fit with her work.
We ended up making the prints as salt prints, which is the earliest form of photographic printmaking, going all the way back to Wedgwood in 1802. He was making a rudimentary version of salt print, and Talbot figured out how to perfect it. You start by soaking the paper in table salt, that's what Talbot used. When you sensitize that with silver, it becomes light sensitive. The image emerges as it's exposing. You do it in the sun, and you can see it come out. It's really fascinating because you know right away whether it's working. It’s similar to a Polaroid camera, you know whether you got it or not.
Because the process is made with salt, Alyson thought it would be interesting to construct the image using salt. We worked for a couple days, and finally figured out something that would work. Just by total random chance, the work ended up resembling astronomical photographs.
Paula: Chuck Close is somebody who's known for working with a variety of processes. You made Woodburytypes with him. Did he come to you knowing that’s what he wanted to do?
Barret: It's a long story. I've been printing for artists for hire for two decades, and just in the last four years I decided to publish work on my own. I've been working with this absolutely fantastic publishing studio in New York called Two Palms for almost 10 years. They had been working with Chuck for a long time and they approached me. They had wanted to make Woodburytypes and never could figure out how to do it. They found my book “A History of the Woodburytype” and contacted me. We decided to do a collaboration. I would come work with them in the studio in New York, and we would do this portfolio for Chuck. It was a perfect storm, perfect marriage. Everything came together, everyone in that shop is really fantastic.
The owner of that studio, David Lasry, is a printmaker, so he understands a lot of the technical challenges that come along with developing a new process or technique for making something. That was really helpful because no one has printed Woodburytypes for 100 years. I had done them on a small scale, basically for myself, just to make sure I could do it. I had never published a portfolio or a sizable edition. When you go from small scale, or what I would call prototyping scale, to production scale, everything changes. You have to re-calibrate everything because what you're doing on the small scale doesn't translate. It's similar to the way in cooking, you don't just double the recipe. There are certain recipes where you have to change it slightly. That kind of thing happens when you go from prototyping to production. The total edition size of this portfolio is close to 300. There are seventeen images in an edition of ten, plus four or five proofs. Then you always have to basically print twice as many as you need in case they get damaged or whatever. There's a lot of work. It took three years to do it.
Paula: How did you come to write a book about Woodburytypes?
Barret: I had been doing research on the technical background because I wanted to make Woodburytype prints and I couldn't find any good information on it. The most recent article that had been printed on the Woodburytype in any journals was 1953, and it wasn't very scholarly. I got frustrated by the lack of information. I spent years scouring everything I could find. This was pre-internet, so I had to go to libraries and literally go page by page through the entire 19th Century British Journal of Photography.
I discovered at a certain point that I had more knowledge about it than others I was talking to, and people started telling me I should publish this somewhere. I didn't set out to write a book. Then I met Carl Mautz, who's an absolutely fantastic guy. He publishes books that are so niche that no one else would publish them, but they're so important, because that information doesn't exist anywhere else. He convinced me to write the book.
Paula: What drives you to work with these difficult techniques?
Barret: I have an agenda. I would like to open up the way people think about photographs. Right now, photography exists as this monolithic technological field. There's really only one, maybe two ways to make a photograph. You have a digital camera, and those digital cameras are all produced by three or four companies. Then you have one computer platform, just Apple really, and one computer software, Photoshop. Then you have two output methods. You've got a screen version, or you've got a digital inkjet print version. That, to me, feels like a really limited vocabulary. It would be like saying to a musician, you get to choose one instrument, and there are no more instruments. All music for the rest of the future has to be made on whatever instrument you pick.
Paula: Things would be pretty monotonous pretty quickly.
Barret: Right. The interesting thing is, if you look at the 19th Century, there was no standardized system. There were so many things going on at the same time. There was always a dominant system, but no one had ever settled on a particular way of doing things. You had albumen prints, you had collodion prints, you had gelatin prints, salt prints. Then you had gum prints, carbon prints, it just goes on. There's actually an encyclopedia of 19th Century photographic techniques. It's just mind boggling how many things are in there.
Paula: And a lot of experimentation.
Barret: A lot of experimentation. I feel like offering these tools and techniques to artists is a way of expanding their vocabulary and allowing them to say things that they couldn't say in a completely closed, standardized system.
I also think that too often, we, meaning the community of people who look at photographs seriously, conflate the photograph and the image and we forget that photographs are objects as well, and that the way you make something, the materials and the techniques, often have an influence on its meaning. The same way it does with music, right? If you play something on a piano, it's going to feel totally different than if you play it on a saxophone. The notes might be the same, technically it's the same piece of music, but it's going to affect you differently. If you play it through an electric guitar with distortion, it'll affect you differently again. I feel like an ambrotype, a gum print, a cyanotype, carbon, Woodburytype, those techniques and materials add a layer to the meaning of the image.
Paula: I see a lot of pictures on my phone, and the materiality doesn't really translate. How do you combat that? How do you get people to pay attention to the object-ness of a photograph?
Barret: It's hard. I think this is why it's absolutely critically important to have museums and other public spaces for people to look at work. This is a conversation that's a hundred years old. If you look at a reproduction of the Mona Lisa, it's just not the same. If you look at a reproduction of a Caravaggio, it's just not the same. You can look at a reproduction of a Richard Serra sculpture, it's nothing like being inside one. You have to go to the thing to experience it. The public spaces for people to view art in the original format are critical.
The epiphany I had was when I saw Cezanne’s, The Large Bathers for the first time at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. We're used to looking at it reproduced in art history books. At the museum it's displayed at the end of a long hallway and when you come around the corner, you can see it. As you walk down the hallway and get closer to it, things start coming out of that painting that you just don't get in the book. Something I had never detected in reproductions is the sheer amount of blank canvas. You can see the tentativeness of Cezanne’s brush strokes and it is clear that he is figuring it out as he goes. His thought process is visible in a way that you just can't see in a reproduction.
Paula: Can you see that in a historic process photo work?
Barret: I don't think it's quite the same. It doesn't have the same immediacy as painting, but the fact that you do get variations between prints and variations on the surface of an individual print, remind us that this is something that was produced by a person, it wasn't spit out of a machine.
Paula: When I look at these Chuck Close Woodburytypes, not only is the tonality special and unique, but I can see the work. I see the frame. I see that viscous material. That is part of the piece, and it's something different.
Barret: Yes. That was a conscious decision that Chuck made because he wanted people to understand that this was a made object. Similarly, the reason the sheet is torn on the Broomberg & Chanarin prints - it's done for the same reason. The same thing with Elizabeth Peyton - the heavy black margin. That's also there to remind us. I don't like it when it gets too heavy handed, it becomes too obvious. I often see students making work that is sloppy on purpose, and that to me, just detracts from the meaning.
Paula: I sometimes think of technology as a continuum in that what is new is necessarily better. It’s as if in the old way of doing things they could only work with what they had, it’s not like anyone had access to an Apple computer. Now that we have an Apple computer, why not just leave old techniques in the past?
Barret: I get that question a lot, and my answer is that you would never say that to a concert pianist. “Why are you playing a grand piano? We have the synthesizer now.” One would never say to a guitarist. “Why are you using an acoustic guitar, we have electric guitars now.” It's a ludicrous question. They do different things. An acoustic guitar sounds totally different than an electric guitar. Your reaction to it is totally different. You wouldn't want to be playing in a heavy metal band with an acoustic guitar. An electric guitar is more appropriate.
Paula: It wouldn't feel right somehow. There would be a disconnect there.
Barret: It just depends on what you want to do. I think more options are always better than less.
Paula: Does the fact that these processes are historic enter into the conversation at all? Like does the fact that this was done in 1900 make it have any particular meaning?
Barret: Let me give you two answers to that question. For the artist, it can be important. Mel Bochner is a leading figure in Conceptual art. He's interested in how technology affects the meaning of the work that's produced, The piece that we did together is an index card that he did in the '60s, where we wrote out quotes about photography. There's actually a little joke in there, which is one of them is fake. We had many, many conversations, but what we ended up doing is he sent me this card, and I photographed it and printed the image using the six different dominant printing techniques from the 19th Century. The salt print, albumen print, cyanotype, platinum, gelatin, and collodion. Each one of those prints was made with the historically accurate negative to go with it. If you look at the prints together you can see very obviously how each of the techniques affect the reception of the image. It changes the images physically, but also changes the way you feel about it. The blue gives you a different feeling than the purpley-peachy color of the collodion print. And the salt print has a gritty feel to it, whereas the gelatin print is very smooth and low contrast.
The other answer to that question is, for me, I'm not particularly interested in technology on principle; I'm just interested in exploring as many possible ways of making something as I can. This just happens to be a really fruitful, seemingly unexplored area that I haven't seen anybody dig into quite as much.
I don't particularly fetishize the handmade object. There's lots of things that I can't do. I can't print big, gorgeous color photographs, it's just not possible. I’ve done a few projects with Trevor Paglen using albumen prints. When we were working on this project, he took me to his lab that was printing his color stuff. They were making these prints that were like eight feet tall and 12 feet wide. He's shooting directly into the sun so the whole thing's overexposed, and the color shift is really, really subtle. That's just something I could never do. If that's what he wants to do, he should take it to the people who can do that.
Paula: Do you have a favorite?
Barret: I think my favorite type of print is still the albumen print. That was the thing that first got its hooks into me, because they're just so amazing to look at. You look at a good albumen print from the 1870s, they're just amazing. I still look at Jackson and O'Sullivan and Watkins, and sometimes I just can't believe how good they are. I don't know how they did it. Really, I can't figure it out. I don't like to use the word perfect, but some of those prints are just absolutely perfect.
Albumen was a better tool for documentation because the photographers involved in the American Westward Expansion and the European Middle Eastern colonization were making records. The more information they could get on their negative and on their print, the better they were as records. They weren't making art, we often confuse that. We look at them now, because they've lost their context, we look at them now as art. At the time, the photographs of someone like Timothy O'Sullivan or Francis Frith were meant to be looked at for their informational function. That made the people who were using salt print techniques have to play catch-up because salt isn't as good at that. What salt's good at is something different. If you look at the great salt prints, the Hill & Adamson, and all of those early salt prints, the prints that exemplify what salt prints can do best, they have a different effect on you. They're much more emotional and much less informational.
Paula: What we're coming back to is what you do very intentionally, which is to match the purpose of the image with the technology that best serves it.
Barret: That’s right. I think because these tools, these techniques demand a certain level of technical knowledge, that takes them out of the reach of most people. I really do think about it exactly like a traditional printmaking studio, where you have people who are really knowledgeable about lithography, you have people who are really knowledgeable about intaglio, you have people who are really knowledgeable about silkscreen, and all the other myriad of printmaking techniques. An artist can go into that environment and have conversations with those people, and find the thing that's going to best manifest their idea.
Paula: Do you think there is a growing re-emergence of historic techniques as a response to digital technology and Instagram, and the sort of sameness and flattening of what photography is?
Barret: I don't really think I can answer that question. I do think the interest in historic techniques is part and parcel with this re-emergence of interest in historic techniques in other areas, too. We're going through this cultural moment where people are thinking about making their own food, raising their own animals, and canning, and all this stuff. Building things, the whole small house movement. This is a moment where a lot of people in the culture are thinking about these earlier, “simpler” ways of doing things.
I think also museums are becoming interested in these things. There’s a dialogue in the art world among forward-looking people about what the role of art is in the world, what is its function. What does it mean to make something in a world, particularly in the political climate we're in? This whole dialogue about whether we have an obligation to be socially conscious. Whether our work is overtly political or not, but do you want to be making a type of work in the world that's productive and meaningful?
I think art is a natural place for an opening up of definitions and an opening up of technological possibilities. You see people using a lot more diversity of media and techniques now than you ever have before. There are very few contemporary artists who just do one thing. Chuck Close is the poster boy of it, but everybody else does it. Everybody does painting, photography, video, performance, installation. There are really very few people who stick with just one medium.
I don't want people to think I'm doing this because I'm nostalgic about it. I'm not nostalgic about it at all, I just think that these tools still have potential and I think it would be a shame for us to lose them because they still can do something for us. I don't want to fetishize history as if it were somehow better back then, or that these are more meaningful, or that something that's made by hand is always necessarily better than something made by a machine. One way isn't necessarily better than the other. Let's not just do either/or, let's do both. I think computers are fantastic, I have nothing against computers when they're used to make great stuff, that's great. That doesn't mean we should throw away all this other stuff.