In the early days of Covid 19, I sat in solitude and questioned my entire existence. I came to the conclusion that everything I’d been working toward for years was no longer my dream. I’d begun to resent digital photography — the very thing that used to excite me. The truth is, the so called instant gratification of digital photography is not so instant, but try explaining that to someone waiting on a photo when a computer goes down. The workload of digital photography is heavy. Hard drives, memory cards, technology, contracts, and editing took time that I’d rather spend making art. For every hour I spent shooting photos, I culled and edited for at least two more. My systems for uploading and dispersing images to clients felt cumbersome. Perhaps the pressure I felt was purely on my own end; my perfectionist tendencies combined with my expectations of client’s expectations were clearly not in alignment. I enjoyed my clients and the process of creating, but nothing beyond that. It was a drag, and I’d known for a while that I was not living my best life. I was merely doing the things that everyone else does to survive in this world as a digital photographer. As I sat performing a complete inventory of my life, I realized it was lacking adventure. I realized I crave the freedom to wander, discover and create. I realized I want to unplug, slow down, work with my hands and have more fun.
About 10 years ago in San Francisco, while working toward an MFA in photography, I had a vision. I saw myself traveling in an RV across the country, making fine art photos, meeting new friends and living an adventurous life. You know that feeling of letting your intuition guide you into the most perfect of situations? The one that appears to outsiders as though you are blowing in the wind with no direction and no purpose? I knew that this was how I wanted to live my life — traveling a month or two at a time — with a studio to come home to so I could make prints, sleep in my comfortable bed, and ground out.
Recently, the pieces of the puzzle suddenly materialized, and I’ve been putting them together as quickly as the Universe would allow. It’s as though time is standing still for me while the world feels like it is spinning faster and faster out of control. Everything I’ve known is crumbling, but I’m not afraid. I am eager to witness the results, the rebuilding of outdated, broken systems, replaced with kindness and compassion, both in myself and the world around me.
Bear with me as I reveal some of the puzzle pieces that seemingly appeared randomly, but in the end (or the middle, as it may be now) they came together both perfectly and beautifully.
Jill Enfield. This beautiful soul who happens to be an incredibly talented photographer and teacher came into my life in 2013 when I was awarded a full scholarship to study Alternative Processes at Penland School of Craft. The course combined digital photography with darkroom processes. I could totally geek out here with details, but in short, it was all about printing. During this time at Penland, I was introduced to the wet plate collodion process when I had the honor of being photographed by Monty McCutchen. I was curious and fascinated by the process of obtaining the image.
If you aren’t familiar with how a tintype or a glass plate is made, here’s a quick overview: It involves chemistry, light, and pure magic. We will cover the details of how this actually happens at a later date. What’s important here is that the thought of making photographs using a method developed in 1851 never left my dreams.
Jump forward to November 2019. I had a burning desire to learn the wet plate collodion process as soon as I could. As I typed the initial inquiry to Jill Enfield to find out if she would be willing to be my teacher, my hands trembled. She suggested that I contact someone local, but I insisted that I needed to learn with her — and soon. My eagerness felt like life or death — six years had passed, and suddenly I could not wait another minute to learn to make tintypes. We settled on a price and a date; I booked a flight to New York for January 4, 2020.
The Hudson River Valley is extremely cold in the winter. Our days were spent learning at the computer, in the darkroom, and outside in finger freezing 18 degree weather. Jill taught me to use her beloved 8×10 Deardorff large format camera. We talked about chemistry, glass, tin, cameras, darkrooms, history, and even how the weather affects the process. I fell in love with all of it. Looking through the back of the 8×10 camera at a world that is both upside down and backwards takes a little getting used to. Pouring liquid collodion on a piece of tin and directing the excess back into the bottle from which it was poured takes skill — and Jill will probably be delighted to know that I no longer have it pour into my gloved hand or have collodion dripping from my elbow during the process. In spite of Jill’s ventilation system, our heads would swim from breathing ether fumes in the darkroom. We ordered all of my supplies together, from camera to chemicals, and even went on a field trip to a tintype studio. I wanted to learn everything, and it is very likely that I pushed a little hard to make sure I got it all. Jill was trouper – she was patient and she taught me everything I needed to know. I am forever grateful.
My photos were nearly perfect while under Enfield’s instruction and I was itching to get into my studio and start making art. The chemistry took nearly a month to arrive, and in the meantime, I made a ventilated darkroom in the garage. I dreamed of (and researched) ways to take a dark room with me on the road so I could make portraits. I cut glass, ordered tin (which is actually coated aluminum), and I asked a famous live music photographer to come sit for me for what turned out to be my first wet plate portrait on glass ever. This was the first time I’d used my own Deardorff 8×10 camera. I mixed my own chemistry for the first time. Artificial lighting for this process had just arrived; I’d never used that either. The portrait I made of Jay Blakesburg that night was slightly out of focus, but y’all, there is an image. The perfectionist in me was upset, but I kept reminding myself that I have to be willing to really be bad at something in order to be really good at it. Attempt after attempt, I failed. Then Covid 19 happened. The creative fire that was in me died down and ceased to burn.
One week into quarantine, suddenly, and without warning, a 1973 Dodge Sportsman Motorhome practically fell into my lap. I traveled 30 minutes on an eerily empty highway at 10 p.m. the night before Easter to take a look. I knew before I got there she was mine — and man, oh man, she was a steal. She had no title, no brakes, dry rotted tires, and water damage. Perfect! I had found my mobile darkroom. With glee, I handed over the small sum of money the seller wanted. My spark was reignited.
But not for long.
The motorhome had to be towed to my favorite mechanic. Talk of water pumps, seals, tires, and brakes made my head spin and my pocketbook hurt. It seemed that my motorhome might never come home to me, but I didn’t give up hope. Then BAM, my SBA loan application was approved and my old girl was ready to come home. Currently, she’s gutted to bare bones, and the missing sections of floor are scheduled to be replaced next week. She needs a new roof, new seals and trim. Every time I get overwhelmed by this project, I have to remind myself that her engine purrs like a kitten, roars like a lion, and wants to fly up mountains at 90 miles per hour.
Her name is Livalot. She is a reminder that if you can dream it, you can live it. What you want is already yours, you just have to claim it. It is never too late and you are never too old. I’m grateful for that moment back in graduate school when I dared dream that I would be in a position to launch projects, create and adventure. The road since has been full of obstacles that mostly I have placed in my own path. I’ve done the work to change the pattens that put landmines in my path, and I realize that that work never ends. But it has brought me to a place where my visions can be turned into realities.
The things I’ve done in my life, the people I’ve met, the places I’ve been, all have created my current situation. I have so much more learning, creating and living to do. I’m honored to have you join me on my journey.