The film photography & darkroom work of David Kirby

Your New Favourite Person: S. Gayle Stevens

I recently discovered the work of S. Gayle Stevens via an alternative photography group on Facebook.  I was instantly struck by her style of wet plate photography, in particular her "Nocturnes" project which combines wet plate techniques with pinhole photography.  I got in touch and asked if she would participate in an interview for this site, and thankfully she said yes!  Read on to learn more about her and her amazing work.

To start with tell us a little about yourself - who you are and what you do.

Like what! I am an artist who lives in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. I have lived here all my life, the only person in my family born above the Mason-Dixon Line. I grew up more Southern than Northern.  I received my MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I am late to photography. I was always a hands on person, cooking, gardening, needlework, etc. I started kicking around in photography late '80's. Loved it. Took art and photo classes and worked in photography, sculpture, and installation.

How long have you been taking photographs?

Since 1986.

I know it's always a bit of a silly question but how would you describe your photographic style to those who haven't yet seen your work?

Uhhhhhh, hmmmm. Exploratory? I keep on pushing to see what I can come up with.

It's clear that you have a love of the collodion process. What draws you to this technique and why?

You know I always wanted to learn collodion. I had tried most of the antiquarian processes, taught myself most of them. Collodion seemed like a process that one would need instruction in, at least for mixing the chemicals. I had made my own cameras, learned to make paper, and wanted to make my own negatives and found the Liquid emulsion lacking. I did not have the chance to take a class with the Osterman's with my work schedule and teaching, but one day I stumbled onto F295 and France (Scully Osterman) had a workshop and I signed right up. The first plate I poured…I was gone, totally in love with the process. I am very hands on and pouring on the collodion and the plate getting cold, the smell, everything…wonderful, ethereal. I love the alchemy (grandfather was a mason). Mixing the chemicals cutting the plates, pouring the collodion, sensitizing the plate, black paws, developing… everything. It is such an expressive process. It gave me my voice and I have not found the end yet. I just keep trying new stuff seeing where it will go, where it will lead me.  I'm just like a little kid with this stuff.  I never grew up anyway, my daughter always said she was older than me!

I particularly love your "Nocturnes" project. What first inspired you to try pinhole wet plates?

I had been doing pinhole for awhile. I used to make all my pinhole cameras (this is before wet plate) I had a 6' 6" coffin shaped pinhole camera that I took to a cemetery and shot then turned the whole thing into an installation. I was shooting 8x10 pinholes with the modern tintype process right before I took the wet plate class. I wasn't about to quit pinhole because I was working in wet plate, though I was told it was not compatible. I am stubborn and do not take no for an answer… I did an entire series on Pass Christian Mississippi 4 years after Katrina with my pinhole Holga entitled "Pass".  It is in the permanent collection of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and a smaller version is in the New Orleans Museum of Art.  I wanted pass to be small and intimate.  I was in a group called "When Pigs Fly", 5 artists ( Anne Berry, Ann Marye George, Lori Vrba, Judy Sherrod and myself).  Judy was a pinhole photographer who made her own cameras.  I had quit making my own cameras by then.  She wanted to learn wet plate.  She came down to Pass, where I have a darkroom in a friends place a block from the gulf, said could we try 16x20 wet plates with the 16x20 pinhole camera she just made, I said I don't have a bath that size but I have an 11x14 bath. So we made an 11x14 test plate. She said what's the biggest wet plate pinhole anyone had done, I said as far as I know no one had done wet plate pinhole mammoth plate.  She's from Texas so there is this size matters thing!  So…we did 49 plates over the course of one year!

What do you find to be the biggest challenge in creating your images?

Well with the 20x20 Nocturnes plates carrying the camera to the water walking across the sand was a hell of a lot of work. Making photograms from large fish is a bit difficult as well. But you did say challenging, maybe staying fresh/ pushing it, seeing how far I can go with the process…

We all have a favourite piece of equipment which we always seem to reach for what is your go to bit of gear?

A 16 ounce can of PBR.  I'm not a gear head.  I pick up stuff, collect, hoard, look, think, drink a beer, think some more…

Are there any photographers which you feel have influenced your style, or any photographers who you admire for their work?

I love Sigmar Polke, Christian Boltanski, Annette, Messager, Roger Ballen, Frederick Sommer, too many and painters too, right now Walter Anderson.

Do you have any advice for any photographers out there who are wanting to get into alternative processes?

A couple things, don't let anybody tell you you can't do something unless they tell you why, and it needs to be it will, say, blow up - now that would be a good reason!  You should not create the alternative flavour of the week type practice.  The work should be in the process that makes the piece the strongest, that makes the work have a voice.  I don't want to see your favorite negative in, cyanotype, gum, platinum, albumen. salt … nauseam.

Anything else you would like to say?

I think I have run on enough.  Be passionate about your art, create work that moves you and it will move us. Have gratitude.

So there you have it, more wise words from another great artist.  Hopefully this has given you a little insight into the work of S. Gayle Stevens and has maybe given you some inspiration for your own work.

Until next time, happy printing!