Sometimes art can blur time — or so it seems. That’s the case with the Columbus Museum’s newest exhibit: “Soldier Portraits.”
Using a 150-year-old photography process called wet plate collodion, artist Ellen Susan produced a series of portraits featuring today’s service members. The photographs echo those of the Civil War, when the same photography technique was used to capture everyday life in the military.
The subjects of Susan’s art vary. They are men and women, different ages, different backgrounds. Sometimes only the face is shown; sometimes the person’s back is to the camera. Often, the frame centers in on a distinctive tattoo.
Susan asked her subjects to bring pictures and belongings they would take with them on a deployment — a frequent example was family photos.
In 19th-century portraits, a person would often hold a daguerreotype of a loved one, she said. The 21st-century version of that is holding a smartphone featuring a photo of a family member. Many of the subjects are from Fort Benning, and the rest were from either Fort Stewart, Ga., or Hunter Army Airfield, Ga.
Susan said what she got from having dealt with such a wide array of service members is the diversity of the fighting force. There is no “Soldier personality” that could sum up all of them, she said.
“The anonymous visual presentation of multitudes of Soldiers on television, newspapers and the Internet became disconcerting,” she said, “and I wanted to make pictures that focused on each Soldier as a unique person who happened to be wearing a uniform.”
Susan explores this concept of the team versus the individual by presenting a series of glass plates with faces. You can look through the series of plates and watch the facial features of different people blend together.
The traditional, opaque pictures range in size. They are all backwards, because the collodion process produces a negative image, and present slightly distorted colors.
“The collodion process is much more sensitive to blue and ultraviolet light,” Susan said. “It reads colors in a different way and this color shift is part of what makes these images intriguing.”
The exhibit is located on the third floor. It opened concurrently with “Likenesses in the Latest Style,” a collection of historical photographs from the 1840s to 1870s. The two exhibits complement each other as a point of contrast and comparison. Both exhibits close Oct. 30.
As always, admission to the Columbus Museum is free. For more information, visit www.columbusmuseum.com or call 706-748-2562.
What is wet plate collodion?
Invented in 1851, the wet plate collodion process creates a glass negative and a detailed print with the following steps.
1) Prepping the plate
The artist smoothes the glass plates edges and surfaces and cleans it afterward to remove any dust particles.
2) Sensitizing the plate
The photographer pours an aged mixture of iodides, bromides, ether, alcohol and collodion on the glass, then places it in a bath of silver nitrate in a darkroom for three to five minutes. The plate is put in a holder, which emits no light once closed.
To expose the plate to light from inside the camera, the photographer pulls out the dark slide and removes the lens cap.
4) Developing the plate
Back in the darkroom, the artist pours developer onto the plate and watches, stopping the development at the right time by adding water. The plate is then placed in a fixer solution.
5) Varnishing the plate
The plate is dried and varnished to protect the image surface from damage.
6) Printing the plate
The artist can make unlimited prints from the glass image. The process involves floating photographic paper in a solution of egg whites and then in silver nitrate. The prepared paper is placed on the plate and exposed to sunlight until the image is complete.