our song, in twenty-six parts

My new show opens tomorrow night at Daniel Cooney Fine Art in New York. Here’s what I wrote for it:

Every history is built of bits and pieces, an incomplete puzzle forming a picture just clear enough to see. With a few well-defined corners, a recognizable building, a credible chunk of sky, we figure we can fill in the rest. Any gaps and spaces still missing, well, certainly they only prove what we already know, don’t they?
Our Song in Twenty-Six Parts is a personal history told in scraps and fragments, some found, some made. It is a love story of sorts, told over and over, embodied in relics and images from a parallel history of photography. Inspired in part by old medical photographs, it is not intended to revive some older and weirder time, but to use my own present point of view to tease out from the past the obsessions and desires – imagined or not – that match and justify mine.
There is a strange gut reaction to viewing old photographs, especially medical photographs – something truly visceral that I just don’t think happens with drawings or paintings. When looking at pictures of bodies, even parts of bodies, it is difficult not to identify, project, empathize, stare. I think, This body is my body (except when it’s yours…) To look at old photographs like these, or sometimes even ones that just look old, I wonder how these little objects could inspire such fear, such lust. After all, isn’t it just chemistry?

Oh, and here’s my Rob Brezny horoscope for the week:

Aquarius Horoscope for week of May 9, 2013

“I know not what my past still has in store for me,” testified the Indian spiritual poet Tukaram. I believe most of us can say the same thing, and here’s why: The events that happened to us once upon a time keep transforming as we ripen. They come to have different meanings in light of the ever-new experiences we have. What seemed like a setback when it first occurred may eventually reveal itself to have been the seed of a blessing. A wish fulfilled at a certain point in our history might come back to haunt us later on. I bring up these ideas, Aquarius, because I think you’re primed to reinterpret your own past.

dear virginia

I didn’t mean to disappear, although I have had to admit finally just how much I travel for art and teaching…

For this Spring semester, I am mostly settled in at Hollins University, in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley, trying to stay quiet and still when I can. It’s an amazing gig, really – I have more time and resources to work than I have had in years, with just one class to teach as my weekly obligation (and my escape from daily solitude…) Now, Hollins is women-only at the undergraduate level, and while there are conflicting arguments on the benefits of single-sex education for girls (in high-school), I am inclined to believe those benefits are real for the students here. My class of eighteen young women is one of the most comfortably outspoken I’ve had in years, without the usual slow start to the discussions… They’re great, and it’s already been a lot of fun.

What we’re discussing is “How to Talk About Art.” My subtitle seems to be “Big Thoughts in Plain English”, and it’s squarely set against the proliferation of often meaningless jargon in recent Art writing in favor of telling the truth about their work. It’s always tough going, but writing clearly for oneself can make a huge difference – not only can good writing clarify what an artist is after, but it tends to feed back positively, inspiring more and better work. (For what we’re up against, look back at this.) I’m trying my best to take my own advice, and to write new things for my next show at Daniel Cooney in New York, coming in May.

I have an exhibition of some 30-odd works (or is that “30 odd works”?) that just opened last week at the Museum here at Hollins, and will be giving a public lecture on April 18th. If you’re anywhere nearby, do come…

Also, in other news, here’s an interview I did with an online magazine from Germany: SEEANCE MAGAZIN.

photography year zero

This Fall I am going back to my Mountain Home to teach the best and weirdest class I’ve yet come up with. Obsessed as I am with re-imagining the earliest days of Photographic History, I’ve always wanted to do a class where we re-invented it all from scratch. That means starting with the scientific knowledge of the early 1800′s (including the light-sensitivity of Silver Nitrate, and the long history of cameras and lenses) and making everything on our own. Of course, this isn’t really feasible especially in a short class, considering the long exposure times needed for Photogenic Drawing negatives and the “extreme danger of trying to make one’s own Silver Nitrate. Hmm… How do I create the feeling of raw discovery and invention, anywhere near what our ancestors must have felt?

Well, I decided, what if instead of the Beginning of History, we imagine the End? A post-apocalyptic near future, where things we take for granted now must be rescued and preserved… we “survivors” could use whatever is left behind to make Art or document the New World. We could mirror the early technological advancements, making cameras with pinholes and broken lens parts, then trying different processes like Anthotypes with natural dyes from the woods, Salt Prints and Photogenic Drawings, on up to the Calotype Negatives, which are developed-out and finally fast enough for use.

I’m thinking we get nice apocalyptic nicknames and armbands, using First Aid kit supplies like cotton balls and gauze for brushes, old “maps” for paper, and so forth. There’s even a Calotype Variant that uses the tannins in Sumac as a developer. At night we can show training films. It’s gonna be so fun! Here’s the description:

dan estabrook – photography year zero

Suppose the Mayans were right? The world has ended, and zombies roam the mountain. It is up to one small band of would-be photographers to wrest truth and beauty from the ashes. With only a few scavenged supplies, we must reinvent photography from the ground up and rebuild the world in our image. We will build cameras from scraps and found objects and make pictures and prints from the most raw materials using a variety of 19th-, 20th-, and 21st-century techniques. No photographic experience required, but hand-to-hand combat skills may be useful.

Only ten students or so allowed, and I know a few who’ve enlisted already.

straightforward strategies

I think it was dear ol’ Lara Meyerratken who first introduced me to Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies many years ago, which she would use to some effect to overcome her periodic songwriting struggles. A collection of “Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas”, the Strategies are short cryptic instructions, printed on cards to be drawn at random and used as solutions for overcoming creative blocks. I had an early web 1.0 version loaded on my Strawberry iMac, tho’ I can’t say I ever let their mysterious suggestions improve or alter my work at all. Just too stubborn I guess.

However, the more I teach, the more I find myself relying on a semi-regular set of instructions of my own, less oblique, perhaps, and a little more direct. Most of them are pretty obvious – like “Stop whining and get the fuck to work” – and one turns out to be identical to the first Oblique Strategy ever, which said “Honour thy error as a hidden intention.” Embracing your mistakes is always a good idea, and I often encourage students to put them up on the wall, or the web, or wherever someone (yourself included) might see it casually, or in passing. The lessons we can learn from failures are often best seen with new eyes, or someone else’s. Maybe it should just say
Anyway, the best and most useful one is what I’ve usually been calling “Driving into the skid,” by which I mean to go in the direction in which you’re being led. It’s really just a way of acknowledging the obvious, since it’s amazing how often we can’t see what’s right in front of us. Sometimes it’s just a matter of accepting that what you’re doing “for fun” is the real work. In other cases, it’s realizing that what seem like two different ideas or pieces are really answers to the same problem.

Last week I had two good examples of this on the same day. My former student (and friend and bartender and future tattooist) Sean Muller has been working in the back studio here since graduation, making his large-scale mixed-media photographs, covered with paint and text and scratches and cement. He’d ask me to come take a look and help him figure out what to do to escape his current block. I guess he was worried that the work was becoming stagnant, the imagery too similar, the hand-work a style. How could he push himself away from more of the same?

On the way out back, he casually remarked that the week’s heat had destroyed much of his undergraduate work, a whole pile of c-prints curled and melted and stuck together. He’d peeled apart a few of them to show me how fucked up they’d become and oh well… As we started to discuss the imagery of his large pieces – almost all of them vertically composed black-and-white pictures of churches and sacred architecture – I thought he should try something totally different just to see how his techniques would translate, what they would mean in a different format. Choosing images at random wasn’t necessarily the right solution, of course, so then what to do? I couldn’t help noticing how similar the textures of his painted pieces matched the damage on his old color work, pieces that once had meaning to him, now ruined. Et voilà! His new imagery could be… the old imagery.

Coincidentally, another former student was in town for a few days. Valentina Vella was a student from my last Concentration at Penland, who’s now in grad school in Chicago. Over an early evening martini at Brooklyn Social we spoke about her growing body of video and sound work, about Janet Cardiff and binaural recording, assignments in grad school and especially how tough it is to meet people in Chicago. New York gives us such easy access to a range of creative and interesting people, but Chicago just felt smaller and more self-selecting, I guess. Where were the interesting weirdos?

Valentina would soon have access to a good set of binaural microphones to use for recording her stories, and she was telling me the right way to use them. Janet Cardiff apparently uses a styrofoam head with microphones in it to get a more human stereo effect, although, as Valentina told me, “The best thing to record the way ears capture sound is to use actual ears. Someone else’s head.”

“Um, ok,” I said, “why don’t you just do that?” Find someone, anyone, and have them record the stories with their own ears. Post an ad on craigslist. Make it like a date – meet them at a coffeeshop first to weed out the psychos. Not only will the work sound better technically, it will benefit from the singular performance in front of an actual person. What’s more, I have no doubt there will be plenty of Interesting Weirdos…

goodbye, all


(I never did finish writing about my trip to Lacock…)

Unfortunately our last day of the workshop brought back the rain, and quite a few other problems. Our plan had been to take advantage of the Abbey being closed to visitors, giving us private access to Talbot’s home with just a few cleaners around to dodge our bulky cameras. We’re all moving a bit slow this morning, and it takes time to sensitize our paper, and to organize our cameras and tripods and raincoats and umbrellas. It seems ages before we’re all able to trudge over to the Abbey. Maybe we’re all just tired.

Inside, it’s quiet and gray and gorgeous. The smell of the great Gothic banquet hall reminds me of my grandfather’s old house in Virginia, and I just want to sit here all day. Matt and Richard and I all set up to shoot in the room, either looking at the still lifes staged for the tourists or at the amazing terracotta figures on the wall. Malin wisely chooses to make an exposure outside, which will be much more quick despite the rain. Inside we’re looking at twenty to forty minutes, I think, depending on how far in from the big windows we are – a real risk for the paper drying out and fogging.

We wait and wait, but don’t have much luck – fog and not much else. I’m guessing we’re just pushing the paper too long, what with the added time to walk over from the darkroom and set up and all, but really it should work. Some of my first successful experiments were long exposures, and the wet weather should be helping out by keeping things moist…

At some point I realize that only the first ones we iodized the night before show any promise at all, and as we dig into the later sheets, the fogging just gets worse and worse. I think the long abandoned wash while we went to dinner was a huge mistake. Instead of making things cleaner or slower with the extra wash, we have fog from leaving the paper unattended. One of the first things I tell the students is to keep flipping or shuffling the papers in the iodizing wash, and now I know just how crucial that is. Only Malin’s first sheets – the ones we were there to agitate – are any good. It’s a huge disappointment for us all.

We get a break after lunch though, perhaps a gift from a sorry God. The rain stops and a bright blue sky with puffy clouds appears, the perfect weather for printing. It’s rather nuts, actually, trying to cram in the waxing of negatives and two versions of salt printing in the four hours we have left of the day, but we do it, and everyone manages a good print by the end. I think we all feel the exhaustion fighting with the desire to keep working, but we’re even trying to cram in a stop by the Museum to see a few things before we go, so it’s time to clean up and be done.

Over at the Museum, Roger shows us a full set of paper negatives, made in a few different formulae (both British and French) by Jonathan Kline in order to show the variations in each version. It’s fascinating, but I see eyes glazing. It’s really time to say our thank-yous and goodbyes.

As I walk back to my room, I realize all the things I didn’t do here: I wanted to re-shoot the Open Door but with an umbrella instead of a broom. I wanted to do a drawing, in negative, of the Oriel Window. I didn’t even get into the amazingly adorable used bookstore right next door to me. Just too busy, I guess. I must come back someday soon, with more time to myself.

The light is still pretty, rain-washed and golden, as I walk to the Bell for dinner. The flooding from the Avon has retreated a tiny bit, even with the influx of water from the morning, but there are pools and ponds everywhere on the way, reflecting the blue and the clouds. When I come back, I want to hop right on off this path and over to the Cotswold Way. It’s only 102 miles…
reflections from the Avon


I get in another wonderful dinner at the Bell, playing cribbage with Roger and Laura and Rachel, and I can’t quite believe I’m leaving already. A couple of nice Scotches again, and soon it’s back to the Abbey to pack and sleep. In the morning I’ll be off to London for a couple more days of friends and fun before I fly home.

hello, sunshine


Last night was really so wonderful, and I wake up smiling. What’s more, I’m breathing freely – the Elixir works! It’s a gray morning but the sun soon comes out, and it’s glorious, really beautiful. We had been planning on shooting at the Abbey before the tourists showed up at 10:30, but first I want to make sure Malin and Matt really have the process down. It’s mostly just little procedural things now – how much chemistry to lay down, how hard to brush, how long to wait… And of course our last few comet gremlins. It seems a good moment to go over everything once more, and to consolidate all that we’ve learned here.

One thing I learned from last night is how much heat affects our negatives… In my experience with wet Calotypes, heat is bad before exposure, but good for development. However, I’ve decided it’s causing the bulk of our comet problem. There’s one of the three coating stations in the darkroom which has a heater at the baseboard right under it. This has been mostly great for us. It’s kept the darkroom dry in all this wet weather (and warm after shivering in the Abbey) and allowed us to have dry paper to use pretty quickly after iodizing. However, whether it’s from heat and static drawing dust to the paper (or Mylar) or just some spontaneous development, it’s at that station that the problem with comets has been the worst. By making sure Matt and Malin work at the other stations away from the heat, I think we can stop the gremlins.

I start the day by going through the process from start to finish, shooting a quick portrait of Richard outside the darkroom (and, in the process, pretty much proving my heat hypothesis – last night’s image done at the other station was perfect; this one, done over the heater, has a big fat comet over Richard’s hat.) Next I thought I’d just hover over each of them as they did their first one of the day, making sure they have clean mylar and careful brushstrokes. No need to do any more tests right here, we thought. Let’s just get to the Abbey! Our goal was for them each to get a great one today, and to troubleshoot every small thing that comes up.

Once again Richard is helping Matt, carrying the heavy tripod and consulting on exposure, while Addison is at Malin’s side. I am bouncing around, trying to guesstimate the right exposure times for the different (bright!) light, and to try and shoot something of my own. I test out one of Richard’s single-wash iodized papers which seems such an obvious advance over Talbot’s method, but it doesn’t give me the contrast I’m used to getting. I may be too stuck in the old way.. It’s times like this that I wish Richard and I (and the rest of the Calotype Society ) had a week or two here to try out every possible combination. The fact that the paper negative was pretty quickly superseded by wet collodion means that it’s a technology that stopped developing before its time.* There must be more to discover and invent, somehow. It may take the 21st Century to do so.

We had talked about doing some initial Salt Printing today, to take advantage of the light and to give us time to shoot inside the Abbey rooms tomorrow morning, but the students are having too much fun – and too much success – shooting today to stop. We need to be iodizing papers too, or we won’t have any to shoot tomorrow, but it’s just so damn gorgeous out for a change. The flooded Avon has washed all over just beyond the Abbey’s ha-ha, it seems, and the world looks bright and green and newly born. We just want to run around in it, so we do.

Both Matt and Malin get four excellent negatives today. We managed to accomplish everything we wanted and then some in this light. And you should see Richard’s gorgeous negative of the tree, done with Pelegry’s process, putting us all to shame. It really is cleaner, easier and slightly less fickle than what we’re trying to do. I only hope the students don’t regret fighting with my (or rather Talbot’s) crazy hand-brushed version. I like to think the inherent hand-made quality has its own attractions, but I worry that that is my own unshared bias.

What we haven’t made time for is iodizing paper (the aversion to the grunt-work another bias they have already picked up from me) but we have to do it to shoot tomorrow. It’s well after class time that we’re still coating, soaking and washing, and we end up leaving our papers in the water and running to dinner, figuring an extra-long untended wash will equal my usual two hours of babysitting.

Tonight is a special night, however, since Roger Watson and his wife Laura have invited us all over for dinner at theirs. I get to the one local shop before it closes, but the wines on sale leave a little to be desired, so I grab a bottle of Jameson Whiskey to bring to the house. I just hate arriving empty-handed…. Richard and I walk up to the Bell to be picked up by Roger, and driven out to the farm. Rachel lives there too, in a trailer that must shake like hell in these storms. Malin will miss the party to stay with her baby and her mum, but Matt arrives a little later, and Addison and other neighbors round out a really lovely group of people. I stuff myself on Laura’s fajitas (and the whiskey, of course) and get into great ranting conversations about Rochester, Eastman House and historical processes with Roger.

By the time I get back to the darkroom, it’s past ten-thirty and the paper has been washing for four hours (a time incidentally suggested by other practitioners, according to Roger) so I assume it will be well-washed and fine for tomorrow. I am exhausted, of course, and breathing freely for the first time in days. I sleep well in the old Abbey.

*This is not strictly true, of course, as evidenced by Richard’s own foray into Pelegry’s dry-paper process from the 1870′s, which is gaining adherents in this tiny community for its stability and ease of use.

big plans


There are certain natural systems that can make one really believe in the Divine Plan – opposable thumbs, sex, a damn good apple – but one that keeps coming up here for some reason is the theory that poisonous plants grow quite near their cure, like Stinging Nettle and Dock Leaf, or Poison Ivy and Jewelweed. And so, I thought, it is with England and Elderflower. They have Elderflower cordials and flavors in every shop here, it seems, and it was either champagne or Elderflower at the museum reception on Friday. I remember reading recently that a thorough study of natural cold remedies revealed that most things, like zinc and vitamin C, did little if anything to help, and that only two remedies showed any promise – gargling with salt water, and Elderflower. Both are rather in abundance in gray rainy England, and it must be to cure bloody colds like this one…

Yes, it’s another gray rainy morning, and I’ve shivered through the cold empty rooms of the old apartment and into the kitchen to make my English Elixir – hot water, lemon and Elderflower – and get to class. A good strong coffee would help, but I’m way out of my coffee habit here. It’s usually one cup in the morning to get me going, and maybe, but not always, others in the afternoon as a purely social experience. There is good coffee here, especially at the bakery on Church Street (one of the four lovely streets in the village) but they never seem to be open when I need them to be, especially on a Sunday.

At the darkroom, we have several trays filled with collected rainwater, and the tent has withstood the night’s storm. Neither Addison nor Rachel has slept much through the howling winds, apparently, and everyone is moving a little slowly. If this keeps up it will be hard on our spirits as well as our work. Nevertheless, we have big plans today to shoot at the Abbey itself, and there’s nothing to do but keep at it.

We are prepping paper every day, so that we can always shoot when we want to. It’s a long and boring process, and easily my least favorite part of Calotypy. There’s no reason to complain – it’s simple enough – but I have some Pavlovian response to the safelight on and the Iodide out. The problem is that I usually do it at the end of the day, when I’m already quite tired. The chemistry is easy enough – brushing on the silver, waiting an interminable few minutes while it dries, then bathing it in iodide for three minutes. I do get crabby at even this simple procedure, but the problem comes from the wash. It needs to be in running water for two hours, and you can’t ignore it. Every ten minutes or so, I make sure to shuffle and flip the papers, and watch for a telltale purple stain of iodide (from starch in the paper, perhaps?) that tells me everything is working ok. But at the end of the day, as I usually do it, I am often already tired, and two extra hours of half-vigilance is deadly to a tired mind… Now, even when we idodize in the morning, I become tired and cranky. Especially on a gray day.

The rain is still intermittent when we finally shoot, but not terrible. (I am glad I got some new wellies for this trip, as they are now my Everyday Shoes.) It’s gorgeous at the Abbey though, especially in the cloisters, where Malin and Addison are working. Matt and Richard are in the courtyard shooting the pear tree against the wall. The light is still quite soft but his exposure is only 20 seconds or so, which is great. Malin’s will be more like 5 or 10 minutes, but still, not bad for indoors. I’m trying a twenty-minute exposure of the Sacristy Window. We’re all getting odd stares and polite questions from the tourists coming through, but I bet it’s less from the big cameras than it is from our matching blue rubber gloves.

Things go pretty well today, and I’m mostly just trying to fine-tune the students’ brushing technique. There are a few missed spots in iodizing and/or sensitizing, and I think they’re just not used to overlapping the brushstrokes as much as they need to, but they’re learning. More disturbing, however, is an increase in the amount of what I call “comets” – little streaks of developing silver not unlike what happens with wet collodion. There are a few reasons these could happen, but I must confess I don’t know exactly what causes them every time. The artifacts of a process are sometimes my favorite part, but not if they take over the image or go wildly uncontrolled, and that’s what’s been happening to us.

I do know from past experience that brushing chemistry back-and-forth past the edge of the paper can easily drag in foreign matter or damage the cotton ball in such a way as to leave a spot. The comet seems to be a high spot of dust that collects developer which then drags across in the direction of the brush, sometimes in all four directions (creating a “star”.) Since our developer includes both physically-developing silver and chemically-developing Gallic Acid, it’s just trouble. It is partly to avoid this problem (and partly an aesthetic choice) that I like to brush well within the edges of the paper, giving a distinctive rough edge (which can be trimmed if you don’t like it. I do.) However that’s not the only obvious problem. Often, to get the paper to sit flat in a camera, one would sandwich the wet paper between sheets of clean glass, but I use stiff archival mylar sleeves. Glass is much easier to clean, of course, and the mylar could build up static that draws in the dust… Hmmm.

comets in the sacristy

lots of comets in the Sacristy

By late afternoon I have Matt and Malin being much more careful, cleaning the mylar and trying to stay within the edges, but we’re still getting some comets here and there. In fact, on a couple of shots, I’m getting them worst of all! Malin can’t seem to help herself and is always crossing the paper, and indeed she does end up with more comets, so that still seems to be true, but whatever else is causing them is still a little baffling. At the end of the day, we do manage a few good shots, and sometimes, even the comets look good. Tomorrow, we will go through every step once more, very methodically, and see how we do.

Tonight after class it’s back to the Bell, with just Richard, Rachel and I. The owners, Alan and Heather, really are the loveliest people, and tonight it’s a proper Sunday Roast Dinner, so coming to this pub really feels like home. The river Avon has quite flooded, as it often does, so the walk back to the Abbey is strange and beautiful in the late evening light. There’s even some peeking sun – the first I’ve seen in ages – and everything looks green, washed and gorgeous. I’m restless and inspired now, warmed by Scotch and sunlight, and Richard urges me to take advantage of it. I still need rest, though, and head back to my room.

Standing at my window, I see the most beautiful light hitting the overgrown walls of the old stables below and I just can’t stay in. Wellies back on, I fairly run over to the darkroom to sensitize a sheet and hurry back with my camera. The sun’s almost down, and I may have missed my light, but as the 30-second exposure begins, it peeks back at me once more. Also, I think I may have figured out what’s been giving us so many devilish comets…
a window at the abbey

This is the best I’ve felt in a long time. I’m listening to Smog, the old standby, on my iPod and walking through Lacock Abbey completely alone. I am teased by golden sunlight, inspired by work, challenged by the chemistry, and it is good.

rain gods

(I’ve returned to London, briefly, and back to the City Interwebs. I’ll back-post the Lacock Adventure from here…)


Well, um… the Rain Gods have certainly delivered. Maybe I shouldn’t have taunted them… We faced down a full weekend of chill wind and constant rain, and of course I’ve already caught myself a very British cold. Between the storms and the sniffles, I have hardly slept at all, and I fear my brain is working at half-speed.

Nevertheless, the class got off to a pretty good start. At least we’re not doing Photogenic Drawings! Talbot’s Calotype is a wet-paper process, and developed-out (instead of printed-out) so exposure times can be rather quick – relative to the era, that is. Even in this rain we might be able to get away with 20-30 seconds for a decent exposure. The gray light can be rather pretty, in fact, and as long as it’s not actually raining on our heads it’s fine. Of course, it is often raining on our heads, and you should see us traipsing through the puddles with large Black Arts cameras, tripods and umbrellas…

There are just a few of us, thank goodness – Malin and Matt, our star students, and our intern Addison, who’s smart and hilarious and who will say the oddest things just when we need him to. Rachel from the Museum is with us as our guide and host, and Roger Watson stops by from time to time. Fortunately we also have the brilliant Richard Cynan Jones along for the ride, whose knowledge of and passion for the many variants of early photography on paper seem inexhaustible. It’s a tiny fantastic group.

We spend Saturday mostly shooting in the area around the darkroom, which is, of course, full of old stone barns and ivied walls and ancient pear trees. There is no lack of grand old beauty… There’s also some old man’s groovy sportscar parked out front, of which Matt manages to make an excellent first calotype. We have a white tent set up outside for shooting when the rain gets heavy, which Malin uses to shoot a portrait of one of her daughter’s stuffed bunnies. There’s plenty to do, and plenty gets done, despite the weather.

The students have a chance to do the whole process from start to finish, having prepared their own paper before lunch by iodizing with silver and potassium iodide and then washing for two hours. While we wait for that, they can shoot one of the many sheets I iodized the night before (stepping away from the Michael Palin festivities at the Museum from time to time to watch over the paper as it washed.) By the end of the day, though, they’re shooting their own paper, and it looks pretty perfect.

One of the main differences with Talbot’s process versus the later advancements is that we’re brushing on most of the solutions, for the hand-made look that drew me to Talbot in the first place. It is, perhaps, more troublesome than floating or soaking the paper, but it uses much less chemistry, and exposes and develops very quickly. However, that means that there’s a certain dexterity that needs to be learned here, to coat quickly and evenly with a cotton ball dipped in solution. It just takes practice, but so far the students are doing very well.

The rain never lets up, and promises to be worse though the night, so before we’re done for the evening, Rachel sets up trays outside the darkroom to collect rainwater. For some odd reason, distilled water isn’t easy to come by here in Wiltshire (along with many other things) – the best we can usually find is de-ionized water for cars or something. We’re hoping the rain will be pure enough to use for our processes, so we can waste less, too. I am choosing to have some small magical belief in the special power of Lacock water… Also, this is not my first time using rainwater so I’m hopeful.

We’re all pretty tired just from the first day, and I need to get some rest tonight if I can; I don’t think I’d last the weekend with this head cold. I’d been looking forward to another hearty British meal, perhaps with another lovely Scotch (so good and abundant around here!) Rachel, Matt and I end up going to the George – another very old pub that now encompasses rooms that once housed Talbot’s local carpenter, where his first Mousetrap Cameras were made. They have this crazy wheel connected to a spit on which a little dog would run, turning the spit over the flame… No dogs helping cook today, but the lamb rack was delicious anyway. Rachel entertained us with stories from her recent months in Kosovo, and I went for Brandy in place of Scotch, in hopes of a cure. Friendship and good food might be all the medicine I need… and, with luck, a decent night’s sleep.

the door is open

I woke up this morning with this thought: I am sleeping over The Open Door. Yes, I’m staying at the Abbey, after all, near the old stables (and this picture.) Outside, it doesn’t even really look that much different from Talbot’s day, except for the cars parked out front. In fact the whole town is like that, from another time, but with ease. It’s not strange, just gorgeous.

I got the full tour when I arrived yesterday, including all four streets in the village. There are several nice pubs, and a surprising number of decent-seeming places to eat, I guess to support all the tourists. Not only does Lacock Abbey draw the history buffs and Anglophiles, but a whole new generation of Harry Potter freaks, since many big scenes from the movies were shot here. Apparently, whole tour buses of kids with capes and wands descend on the village from time to time, but probably not during rainy April. It’s busy even now though, enough so that the Museum staff and locals have begun avoiding the Red Lion pub across the street in favor of the Bell up the road, where we had lunch. I’m going to get fat on sausage rolls and battered cod.

I went through the Museum here, too, and saw the inside of the Abbey. Of course, I saw the famous Oriel Window and Talbot’s library and apparati. Once again, I have been bodily thrown into the past… There are too many spots that I recognize from the History, too many obvious ghosts wandering around. What would the man have thought of us now, reviving his old ways in his old house?

I’ll be working out of a converted room in a barn next door, the only 13th-century darkroom I’ve ever been in. It’s perfect, and got me psyched to start right away, iodizing paper for tests tomorrow morning. I saw a tell-tale purple iodine stain on the paper as it washed, and this is a good sign for the chemistry working the way it should. By the time the sheets were out and hanging to dry, I’d had a scotch and dinner at the Red Lion, and was feeling wonderful. Sleep came fast but fitful, perhaps from the distinct sensation of wisps and shadows in the room.

Today was fantastic, despite the chaotic weather. The sun was out early, but everything was wet, and within an hour there’d be sunshowers, heavy downpours, and blue skies. But I had the whole day to work on getting things ready for class, and making sure my new batches of paper would work ok. I could get chunks of clear skies in which to shoot, and plenty of rain to try to work around. I’m sure we’ll be dealing with both extremes all week. I just had to guess wildly on exposures, ready to jump or cover if the weather shifted. It could happen within 30 seconds. Often, it did.

I was pleased to find that my paper worked well, and I shifted from my Troubleshooting Panic Mode to smaller tests and experiments: Would this loose cotton create more spots than do cotton balls during Gallic Acid development? Does a stronger solution of Gallic withstand a stronger Sodium Thiosulfate bath, even without an alkali buffer? Can I reverse the tones of a developed calotype to make an instant direct positive? (Almost…)

With this rainy weather I wanted to see how long I might have before I needed to shoot my wet negative without getting any exposure change, so I sensitized a sheet, packed up my camera and plate back and tripod and umbrella, and walked down to Talbot’s grave, at the end of the Village road. This was a 30-second exposure (at f8) in pouring rain, with a leisurely 15-minute stroll between coating and developing:

Talbot's Grave

At this point, I am just so excited for the next four days of class… Bring it on, Rain Gods!