Coinciding with the opening of Element’s new London flagship store, we had the opportunity to catch up with Brian Gaberman and fellow Element Advocates Thomas Campbell and Ray Barbee to discuss the “Road to Wolfeboro” show, analog vs. digital photography and more.
Earlier this season, Element released a mini-documentary about photographer Brian Gaberman dubbed “The Road to Wolfeboro.” Given carte blanche by the brand, Gaberman implemented Civil War era photography techniques to capture the rural Northeast of the United States, creating work that represents Element’s premium Wolfeboro jacket collection. The resulting photos became the core of a touring exhibition across three cities – Barcelona, Berlin and London – that also featured live music from Element Advocates Bastien Duverdier aka Képa and Ray Barbee. For those unaware, the Element Advocate program has been a longstanding tradition within the brand, whereby Elements nurture long term partnerships with artists that infuse the product with amazing graphics and designs.
While in London for the Element Store opening, we had the opportunity to sit down with Element Advocates Gaberman, Barbee and Thomas Campbell to discuss the process behind the beautiful, antiquated work as well as their thoughts on the current digital landscape.
Thomas Campbell: Brian, so what is this body of work, when did you make it, what’s the deal with it?
Brian Gaberman: Basically the Element Europe Art Director knows that my personal work is very different from my commercial work. He knows that that’s my love and I don’t get to do that very often these days. So he gave me the opportunity to go on an adventure and shoot whatever I wanted. I jumped on that opportunity and went and explored the East Coast where I grew up. I was a skateboarder growing up there, but I was never a photographer on the East Coast so I have a certain picture of that place in my mind. I wanted to go back with a different set of eyes, as a photographer, just see how I responded to it. I didn’t know what I was going to shoot, at all. I know what I gravitate towards but I didn’t have a plan whatsoever
Thomas: The first thing is.. you normally shoot skateboarding on 35mm digital.
Brian: So what I do for my personal work is a hand made glass negative. You hand cut the glass, you clean it, you coat it with silver emulation and then you expose it. It’s an adaptation of an 1850s photo process, so every one is unique. There’s a lot of mistakes, things go wrong non-stop..
Thomas: The mistakes are part of it.
Brian: The mistakes are what make the images interesting half the time. Shooting digitally is like the polar opposite, when I click the shutter I know exactly what I’m going to get. There’s no mystery there for me. I’ve always been in love with the happy accidents in photography. Light leaks and things that are beyond your control… however you want to put that perfect little storm of mistakes coming together.
Thomas: Those photos are all just like one huge happy mistake.
Brian: Exactly. They are. 100%. Usually what I’ll do is shoot the same exact photo twice because one plate might just be completely no good, and the other one might be amazing and beautiful because there’s one weird bubble or one weird flaw in the right place. So I’m in love with it for all those reasons, all those uncertainties. I have it dialled in enough that I’m confident with it, but like I said, one could suck and one could be amazing even though they were shot 2 seconds apart, just because of the way the emulsion ended up going on the glass on one or the way the light bounced around in my camera for one. It’s totally different, and that’s what’s so cool about it. I’ve always embraced that about the process.
Thomas: How long are those exposures?
Brian: With bright sunlight exposure, wide open, it’s like a 1 second exposure. As soon as you get into any shade or anything, you’re looking at 8, 10, 30 second exposures. It’s really hard to shoot people.
Thomas: That’s why all those pictures were so stoic.
Brian: Probably. All those civil war portraits, people were holding still for like 10 seconds, so everybody looks crazy. On this trip I met up with an old friend up mine who I grew up with and he’s a photographer and he wanted to shoot my portrait with a similar technique. And he shot my portrait with one of the most famous civil war photographers lenses, actually, and this guy had it and he got to use it. And I had to sit there, it was the hardest thing ever for me as I’m a really shaky person, and I had to sit there for a 5 second exposure and not move. It was really challenging. So anyway that’s what the trip was about.
RAY BARBEE ENTERS
Ray Barbee: So what’s the process? I don’t know anything about the process. I know it’s all hand done, but you’re making you’re own neg basically?
Brian: It’s on glass. You go and buy glass, you cut it down to the size, you sand the edges so you don’t cut yourself on it, then you have to clean all the chemical coating off the glass. It’s coated with some weird chemicals to keep water from beading up on it, but it doesn’t work with the emulsion. So every piece of glass gets scrubbed.
Ray: Both sides?
Brian: You don’t have to do both sides, but if you forget which side and use the wrong side..
Ray: It’s like paper right? I always do the lip test..
Brian: It’s a little harder to tell with a piece of glass, so the way I do it is to coat multiple layers of gel and clear gel and sensitized silver gel, and then get em dry enough so you can transport them. Because then you have to load them into your film holder, which is another hand made thing, which if you watch the video, you’ll see it shows me cutting everything to make the custom holder. It’s just cool because you do every step of it.
Thomas: How many negs did you bring?
Brian: So I made 100. I created 100 plates and 4 light-tight cases that kept each piece of glass separate from each other, milled out 4 cases, wrapped all those things up in a big pile. I brought 7 film holders with me, so I could shoot 7 photos in a day. Like 7 frames. I could make 7 exposures before having to reload them.
Ray: Because of the weight?
Brian: It just takes a long time to make 1, so 7 was like a luxury for me, for years I’ve shot with 4. I go out and have the chance to take 2 photos, 2 exposures each, and that’s it. So it’s cool because it changes the whole process, it’s like the polar opposite of digital photography. Like, everything. You really make sure you want this picture. Because it’s hours and hour of work just leading up to making the exposure, just to prepare the plate. It’s a lot. So I like the weight that that carries. On this trip, I was like “I only have 10 days and I have to get something out of this.” So maybe I shot things I would have overlooked or disregarded. So I ended up getting things..
Thomas: So more spontaneous?
Brian: That’s what the whole trip ended up being, about trusting instincts instead of over thinking, because I always over think. So it was cool to let go of all that. I didn’t even know where I was going. I started in New York, and I was like “I want to go to Connecticut to visit my family and I have a friend here, and a friend here,” but other than that I didn’t have any specific places I was going. So it was like “which way do I want to turn, which road do I want to go down?” It’s just you, and you just get in the car and go. I just started trusting and that’s how I would find things. It was a real growing experience.
Thomas: It is pretty expressive and you can tell it’s spontaneous too. What is that one with the circle that’s on the wall?
Brian: It looks like a donut? It was just this weird thing in a field out in front of a pond, like an old stone milling wheel. So I started looking for odd things, but at the same time I wasn’t looking for anything specific or in particular. I wanted to capture a feeling of this place. When I came home and thought “wow, these are really dark photos, really creepy” and I was like well “I guess that’s how I see where I grew up.” I never thought about it that way, but that’s how they all came out.
Thomas: This is a lot darker compared to your California life.
Brian: Well yeah, the nature of my day job. But I see a lot of people shoot stuff with it and it looks really different, I just tend towards those things and I don’t know why.
Thomas: Because you’re dark and creepy.
Brian: I guess so. Yeah.
Ray: So after you capture the image, then what? Then how do you develop it?
Brian: It’s a pretty straightforward process after that, it’s almost like developing a print. You run it through a bunch of chemicals. On this trip.. I’d never travelled with this process before so I didn’t know. I shipped all the glass across the country, I didn’t know if it got ruined on the way, if it sat on a hot runway for 5 hours, there’s a million things that could have gone wrong. I was kind of freaked out by that, thinking everything’s riding on me not even knowing if any of this is going to turn out until I get home, so I started developing stuff at night in the hotel bathrooms and things like that. Or turning my friend’s closet into a darkroom, and I developed some of the plates on my grandma’s washing machine in her bathroom, just so I could see if I was making progress.
Ray: To me it’s the feel of it, it’s a different material, but there’s such a thread from your other 4×5 work. It’s not far from that. I want to say your process gets you to a similar place even though it’s different materials. I think it’s cool.
Brian: It’s also an interesting process because it’s not sensitive to the color red, at all. It’s orthochromatic, so if you have red in your skin, that just goes dark. Usually the skies will blow out because they’re so blue, there’s so much blue light and no red so I kind of had to figure out how to deal with that. It would be like throwing a blue filter on it. Like your freckles just go black.
Thomas: Everyone in the old photos, they all look so weird.
Ray: I mean I feel like for portraits, it’s not favourable. People look gnarly, and rough and raw. The process is what’s interesting, but it’s not flattering, it puts everybody in this like…
Brian: That’s why I don’t really shoot people with it, that’s not my thing.
ON DIGITAL VS ANALOG PHOTOGRAPHY
Brian: I don’t have a problem with digital, but as long as I’ve been working with it I still can’t find the soul in it, like there is in analog photography. I’m not a purist. it’s just I was sort of forced into shooting digital photography for work because nobody could wait. I used to do a whole shoot and then… “wait I gotta go in the dark room and make contact sheets and make a bunch of proof prints and then you can look at the shoot.” I do love analog photography. I mean that’s where I started and again, I just can’t find the soul in digital photography in the same way. Even though the cameras are the same, it doesn’t feel the same when you click the shutter.
Thomas: The cameras aren’t the same though.
Ray: That’s a big part of it, the camera’s aren’t the same so it highlights the fact that it’s a different thing.
Brian: They’re trying to be the same. You’re right. So I’ve embraced digital photography as much as I can for what I need to do with it and I’ve done my best to bring it back to where I think images used to look like for myself. I always used to keep a real print next to the computer just to remind myself how different digital images look from a black and white print, because the tone range is so different. Now my brain is trained for how it needs to look. I think it’s silly that we have to do all this work to a digital image to get it to look like an analog image again. But given the nature of trying to keep a job and working in the world that’s what I need to do. I don’t hate it or anything, but it’s more work in it’s own way. I can make a digital image look like these pictures that are up in the store, but it would take more work and I wouldn’t feel the same about it because then it’s pre meditated.
Thomas: There’s no dance.
Brian: If I want to apply a scratch right there, or a bubble right there, that’s not an accident, I have to think that.
Thomas: This is what I think about digital photography. With film photography it’s like you’re over here, and the film’s over there, and you both dance to the center of the room and there’s something going on. With your process, the film dances 7/8th of the way or 9/10th of the way across the room to you. With digital you have to dance all the way over. That doesn’t move, it’s a wallflower. You do all the dancing and that’s not cool.
Brian: There’s no personality.
Ray: It’s about an emotional connection, right, so I find just that simple connection pretty much like what Thomas was talking about. If you’ve got to hustle to try to create that connection… like this whole thing about technology and how it’s doing away with the old way of doing things… but it’s colder and you don’t have the emotional connection with it, so it’s not really better!
Brian: So that’s this giant movement towards handmade things again.
Ray: It’s the illusion of being better, but it’s not really better, it’s just another approach, but it’s lacking that emotional connection, part of being able to connect with it.
Brian: You’re nailing it. People are beginning to see. Like, “why is this not fulfilling?”
Ray: “Why am I connected to this?”
Brian: “Why don’t I feel the same?” Why does listening to an MP3 not feel the same as a record, you know? Because we’re human, we’re tactile beings, we’re not 1s and 0s.
Thomas: What you’re not? Ones and zeros?
Brian: Well I am.
Ray: Xs and Os.
ON INSTAGRAM AND ART
Brian: Here’s what I think about Instagram. When it first appeared all my friends were like “hey you should check this out, it’s awesome, you’ll see so much cool stuff.” So I signed up for an account but I didn’t ever post a single photo, I just wanted to keep up on my friends and see what they were doing, but really quickly what I found was that every 5 seconds I was just looking at my phone trying to see something new and it was never good enough. So I was like “this is all crap now, what happened?” In the beginning it seemed so interesting. That happened really fast for me, probably like 3 weeks, 4 weeks, so then I just cancelled my account and never looked at it again. And that’s it. And I know it’s really important in the world right now and I get that, but if I look at that many pictures, for me it just murders the spirit of it all. I don’t have room in my head for that much imagery. Some people do, it’s okay, I just don’t.
Ray: I feel like you’ve got to be careful. It’s that whole thing where what you digest can get in there and come out. And I feel very careful about just seeing bad images and just feeling like that’s gonna be your bar. You digest so much of that, that there might be this lower sense of what a good image is, if you just keep looking at it. Like if you listen to lame music all the time and then go to write… I’m not bagging on everybody on instagram but I just think…
Thomas: I don’t even think it’s like that.
Ray: But it’s what you come to it for. You come to it for a different thing. My interest is like, “oh that’s a cool image.” Because people do post up good images. For some people it’s an information thing, but for others it’s an outlet for photos.
Brian: For me, I just get overwhelmed with all that stuff too easily and I don’t like the concept of new, new, new every minute. That really bothers me about where our whole culture’s heading, because nobody cares about anything anymore, really, they don’t. After 15 minutes nobody cares. So ..
Thomas: But that’s bullshit, that’s total bullshit. Think about it. Think about what you care about, what Ray cares about, what I care about.
Brian: I feel like we’re a dying breed.
Thomas: You know what, that dying breed is a lot of people. There’s a lot of people that care about stuff. Like, we care about stuff, and I don’t give a fuck what other people think. I don’t care if people like things for 15 minutes, I don’t care about those fuckin people. I’m doing stuff that I want to do that will have a duration and a life and if they are into it, fine, and if they’re not, I don’t give a shit and fuck that. It’s not that people don’t care. Some people don’t, but a lot of people do, and those are the people that like your work. So fuck off.
Brian: That’s not why I got into it. I told this to somebody else, I’m the world’s worst fuckin artist because I don’t give a shit. I really don’t make these pictures for anybody else. I don’t. And I don’t care to even show them sometimes because I don’t care what people think. I don’t even really like to talk about the work because I didn’t make it for anyone else. Like, you can have your own moment with it and that’s fine and that’s not even my business.
Thomas: That’s all art is, anyway.
Brian: That’s what art is, but that’s not what the art world is.
Thomas: Yeah but that’s what the art world wants to be. That’s what I think too. People are always asking me “what does this mean, or what is it?” And I say “what do you see?” Okay, what you see, that’s what it is. That’s all it is, nothing that I have to say… I’m not writing a manifesto about it, it doesn’t matter what I say. Whatever’s happening with you, is happening.
Like I just did a mural at Facebook in the accounting department and all of those people, their mentality was so ones and zeros oriented that they were all like “what does this mean?” It was a tripped out mural, totally bizarre, and they were just like “well, I don’t understand” and I’m like,” well that’s fine, what you don’t understand is your experience.” Like, “if you don’t understand, what do you think?” And then they would say, “well I think this.” And I’m like “there you go, that’s what it is. That’s it.”
And this one guy was just like “wow, my wife is an abstract painter, and I never thought about it like that . Whatever I’m thinking or feeling, is what it is!” And I was like, “yeah.” And he was like “this is going to help me with her so much.” I was just like “yeah, whatever the fuck is happening is all it is.” So, it doesn’t matter Brian, it’s all your own perception. It doesn’t matter.
Brian: It’s very complicated.
Thomas: And not at all.
See Brian Gaberman and Element’s ‘The Road to Wolfeboro’ photo series and mini-documentary here.
- Photography: Pete Williams for Highsnobiety.com