The American West Portraits – Quinn Jacobson

15th March – 9th June 2012


Centre Iris … pour la photographie

238 rue Saint-Martin – 75003 Paris

Tuesday to Saturday from 2.00 to 7.00

Admission: FREE

For more information please contact the Gallery – +33 (0)1 48 87 06 09

Quinn Jacobson, is known as one of the finest Wet Plate photographers, having created some truly remarkable plates, such as creating the stunningly large size of 16″x20″,  a truley mind blowing scale for a glass plate, taking a tremendous amount of skill to produce as shown below. Jacobson will be displaying his mesmerising work in Paris at the Centre Iris… pour la photographie on the 15th of March, where he will also be demonstrating how to produce a wet plate as well as conducting workshops. If you are in Paris, make sure you go and take a look at his beautiful work.

‘I was born in the American West and have lived most of my life here. It’s an interesting, dangerous and beautiful place. Most of the time, it lives up to its reputation. There’s still a remaining sense of the frontier, of possibility and that anything goes in the Wild West. This is revealed and is experienced in, and through, its people and the freedom found here. 

The American West has been both romanticized and demonized. Some people think of it as like an Albert Bierstadt painting or a vast, wide-open landscape filled with buffalo and mountains. Some think of the California Gold Rush of 1849 or the genocide of the Native American people. Like my photographs, all of those perceptions and history are part of the American West. 

The American West attracts unique people from all parts of the world. It’s the rugged individualism that I find attractive and interesting. I’ve purposely eliminated the landscape in every way possible and replaced it with a stark, plain or dark background. I’m only interested in presenting the people. I want to present them as I see them, straightforward and without masks.

The images are made with the Wet Collodion process (1851 – 1880s). I wanted to amplify, or exaggerate, the 19th century idea and the aesthetic of the American West that still exists today in some people’s mind. Some of my images are very large, not unlike Carleton Watkins (1829-1916), who captured beautiful landscapes throughout the west on 18” x 22” (45,7cm x 56cm) glass plates using Collodion. I’ve used 16” x 20” (40cm x 50cm) glass and metal plates (and smaller plates) to record the beautiful landscapes of the faces of the American West.’

Below is an interview we had with Quinn about his work and his up and coming exhibition:

Film’s not Dead – What inspired you to get into Wet Plate photography?

Quinn Jacobson – I’ve been working professionally in photography since 1984. In the early 1990s, I was in undergraduate school. In my senior year I took a few experimental photography classes. One of those classes was Albumen printing. I was immediately intrigued with the quality and process. I did a little more research and discovered that this was feasible for me to do. Life got in the way, and it was a long time before I actually followed through with learning and working in Collodion. I was working as a photojournalist and around 1999, I felt that I was at the end of my relationship with photography. I was going to give it up. I felt disconnected and disengaged with my work. I was looking through John Szarkowski’s book, “Looking at Photographs; 100 Pictures from the Collection of the MoMA”. There was a small Ambrotype by an anonymous photographer from 1875 on the second or third page of the book. Something took over and I said that I was going to find a way to work in the Collodion process. I spent a lot of time researching and reading.

 I found Mark Osterman and France Scully Osterman, better known as Scully & Osterman at the George Eastman House and requested a private workshop. The Ostermans were artists using Collodion for fine art photography and had taught the Wet Collodion process in the US and internationally since 1991.

I traveled to Rochester and learned the basics. It took me almost 8 months after that workshop to learn chemistry, get equipment and make my first successful image. All of that has changed now. People can take a workshop, buy a chemistry kit, and go home and make an image that day. It’s a different world now when it comes to learning the process. 

Film’s not Dead – Why particularly this process?

Quinn Jacobson – It speaks to the experiences in my life. It evokes memory and timelessness.

My work, for the most part, has been created from my life experiences and from questions about my heritage. My father is Jewish and my mother was Native American (Navajo). This heritage gives me fertile ground to explore the ideas of otherness, genocide, identity, difference and memory. That’s what I’ve done for almost thirty years with photography.

The questions, concerns or even commentary about those experiences are evident in the photographs I make. I commented earlier that I made a body of work called, “Portraits from Madison Avenue”. That work came from spending time in my father’s low-income apartment complexes as a young boy. I was around marginalized people, or people on the fringes of society, and it generated a lot of questions for me about identity, difference and memory. I’m still exploring those ideas through photography. It’s the perfect medium for me.

I lived in Europe for five years (2006-2011) and made another body of work about the Holocaust and otherness called, “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” . Roughly translated, it means, “Struggling to Come to Terms with the Past”. For the most part, the title was directed at me. I made images where the great synagogues once stood before the pogroms and Kristallnacht on November 9/10, 1938. The emptiness and darkness is apparent in these images, it was very revealing, at least to me. I understand that part of the emotion I feel when I look at these images is due to the fact that I was there.

I also made portraits of otherness there, too. It was an extension of what I had been doing in the states but on a much larger scale. It’s always been important for me that the process ties into my work, or has a relevant connection, and that it sits in the history of photography and the history of art, too. Whether it’s working from the idea of abandonment on “Portraits from Madison Avenue” or using glass and cyanide for the “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” project. Those threads connect me (and hopefully the viewer) with the work and drive me on to explore more. This is why I talk about process. It’s central to my work. 

Quinn Jacobson – These two bodies of work, almost 10 years of Collodion work, were exhibited at Centre Iris Gallery in Paris, France from March to June 2010. The show was titled, “Glass Memories”.

Film’s not Dead – Do you ever use a hand handle camera now or is all your work done through using the Wet Collodion Process?

Quinn Jacobson – It’s all historic processes for me. I’m working in Daguerreotypy now.

Film’s not Dead – What are your favourite subjects to shoot and why?

Quinn Jacobson – I make images of people, mostly. I’m a human being and I can relate with most human experiences. As I said earlier, I use portraiture to explore my own history and heritage.

Film’s not Dead – How do you come to meet the people you photograph?

 Quinn Jacobson – I meet them everywhere. Coffeeshops, churches, synagogues. Friends and family introduce me to people as well.

Film’s not Dead – How long on an average do you take photographing someone? Do you learn about their stories as your photographing them?

Quinn Jacobson –I’ve spent a long time making portraits of one person. If they’ll come back to my studio time and time again, I’ll photograph them until I’m satisfied and/or until I know them. I spent almost two years with some people.

Film’s not Dead – How long have you been working on The American West Portraits?

Quinn Jacobson – I arrived in America in June of 2011 and started making photographs for this project in September. I guess 7 months on this project.

Film’s not Dead – What advise would you give to young photographers and people who would like to get into Wet Plate photography?

Quinn Jacobson – What I’m about to say is not meant to sound condemning or mean in anyway. It’s simply a way to identify work made in any given process and who’s making it. It allows the viewer to connect better to what they’re looking at.

Please keep in mind that I’m painting with a broad brush making these statements. I’ve seen two types of people working in historical photographic processes. The first is what I call the techno-hobbyist. This is by far the largest group. And the other is the artist. Rarely, do you get a hybrid, but there are some out there.

If you like playing with the gear, talking chemicals, lenses, cameras you’re probably a techno-hobbyist. If your first comment on a Collodion image is, “Cool! What focal length is your lens?” or “Awesome, are you using triple-salted Collodion?” If those questions resonate with you, you’re probably a more of a techno-hobbyist than an artist. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s important for people to be able to tell the difference. When you make a photograph in Collodion, it will generally be for very different reasons than when an artist makes an image in Collodion. A lot of times, the audience, or the viewer, can’t tell the difference.

If you’re interested in context and intention and wonder why the artist made the image, or what the concept behind the work is, you’re probably more of a creative person – looking past the technical – and more concerned with the image as it applies to meaning and purpose. Not all artists lack technical skills in these processes. However, this axiom is not true for the techno-hobbyist.

Collodion is an easy process to learn, but difficult to master. If your intention is to become a technical master of the process, I would encourage you to know the chemistry, understand technique, know the equipment and understand light. You need to know these areas intimately and completely. Allow yourself five or ten years of dedicated, and focused exploration and you’ll probably get there. I recommend that if you plan to teach the process, make sure you do it right. If you can only show how to do it, I recommend staying away from teaching it. A master has control of the process and can resolve technical issues quickly and efficiently. Travel with the process, too. If you stay in a comfortable “studio” environment, or in one geographic location, you’ll be handicapped as a teacher and/or master. You need no intention or context to make photographs in this case. They will all be technical exercises, at least to some degree. If you are a techno-hobbyist, you should describe your work in that context.

If your intention is to work as an artist and to use this process (or any other) to express ideas, questions or concerns. And if you find this process applicable for your work or concept, it’s best to stay away from the technical talk and only talk about the content/context of your work as it applies to the process. Also, you should be prepared, and have the ability, to defend your work in the context of your concept and in the history of art and photography. Don’t let the craft overtake the concept; make it compliment it, transparently and subtlety.

Film’s not Dead – What do you want your portraits to convey to your viewers?

Quinn Jacobson – Compassion and humanity. We all have stories and we are all marginalized (or will be one day). I would like them to feel that when they see my work.

Film’s not Dead – What do you feel about photography now?

Quinn Jacobson – I’m confused. I’m accused of being a hater when it comes to digital. I don’t hate any form of image making. There are differences, that’s all I’ve ever said. If you’re after a certain aesthetic and experience, digital may or may not be the right solution. Same with film or historic processes. The problem is, you need to know what you’re after, that’s my biggest problem with photography today. Most seem completely lost about what they’re doing or what they want to do.

To see more of Jacobson’s work please click Here.

Updated:July 29, 2019