Process Not Perfection by Ron Cowie

I attended Fotofest in 2001. I had the chance to talk with with Burt Finger of Photos Do not Bend Gallery. He and his wife Missy sold me my first piece of art: Keith Carter Dog Ghost.

We were talking about life and art during a break. I was 31 at the time and very much into being a deep and profound artist. Burt was patient, kind, and quick to laugh. Still is.

I’ll never forget what he said, “When I came back from Vietnam, I swore I’d never be petty. I’d never take anything for granted, Every day will be a gift. You know what, Ron, it didn’t take too long for me to get right back to being petty and taking everything for granted.”

In 2001, my first wife Lisa Garner, was still alive and in the next room. I felt I had the world at my feet. The only really painful stuff I had experienced could be chalked up to witnessing the normal progression of life: deaths, breakups, 8th grade graduation.

I’ll be 49 this year. I’d like to say I’m more more reflective and less petty. I have experienced a portion of joy and pain associated with being on the planet and loving people while I’m at it. I take it all for granted more often than not. It’s part of being human. No one among us can maintain perfect spiritual balance all the time. That isn’t my  problem. My problem is thinking that I can’t function until such is the case.

I’m a 48 year old confused artist who hasn’t really made anything of comment for a while who says “I’ll never take anything for granted.” while watching movies about a dead artists who couldn’t take anything for granted.

However, just for today, I’m not going to take it for granted (fearful) and say “I’ll take pictures or write tomorrow.” Today, I remember that conditions are never ideal to work. Creativity needs something to work against.

Keith Carter, wrote on one of his cameras “It’s your job”. Just take the damn picture and forget how you feel. The obstacles and distractions are not there to punish you for having an idea, but there to direct your actions to the parts that need more attention.

In that spirit, have a great day.


Teaching a Tintype Workshop by Ron Cowie

Teaching Tintypes.

I was in a darkroom teaching a tintype/wet plate collodion workshop at the New England School of Photography. I’ve been teaching at the NESOP for about twenty years and it never gets old.


Teaching tintype is the epitome of “slow photography” and that is important. Students left with under ten finished plates each and that was a successful weekend. In a fun twist, when wet plate collodion and was the “latest and greatest” technology of the day (1860’s), it was the fastest process being used.

Why teach (or take) this workshop?

  • It’s good to slow down.

  • Learning the history of a medium builds a deeper understanding of its present iteration.

  • The sound of running water in a darkroom is peaceful.

  • It’s fun.

I often think of the classes I teach as “play-dates” for adults. While they can inspire larger bodies of work, most of the time, it’s just a fun weekend of trying something new.

The most successful students are the ones who just have fun splashing around, asking questions, and making stuff for a few days.


I always leave these weekends a little tired but energized. The curiosity of the students is contagious and delightful. While I know more about the mechanics of the process I’m teaching (I hope), I’m still learning how to teach it effectively. That journey never really ends. For that, I’m grateful.

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Getting back to basics by Ron Cowie

Art-making has been about confronting personal issues that stand in the way of whatever message moves through me. The creative roadblocks are self-generated. Admitting I need to relearn film, I’m bringing myself to right size. I’m slowing down and being mindful. I’ve never been very good at outrunning the process, so I might as well align my pace with it and trust that the lesson I need to learn will reveal itself in due time.

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Food Photography Lecture by Ron Cowie

Food Photography

Ocean State Improv Festival 2018 by Ron Cowie

I’m happiest working with creative people. The Ocean State Imrpov Festival is hosted by the Contemporary Theater Company in the heart of Wakefield, Rhode Island. Improv groups from around the world have come to this very popular event that takes place in the beginning of summer. 

The improv workshops and classes at the CTC are great for anyone wanting to access their creativity. Improv is different than other forms of theatre because it made up on the spot and completely unscripted. The foundation of all improv is the statement “Yes, and…” which focuses on supporting your improv partner, being positive and present in the moment. 

It challenges the performer to remain flexible and generous.

It was Kaisa Kokko, and internationally known Improv actor and teacher, who said “You can’t break improv. Improv goes on forever.” 

I like being around people whose aim is to focus their creative energy for the benefit of others. 

Fashion Photography: Cleverhood Beach Cape by Ron Cowie

This photo session took place on Narragansett Beach, one of the best places in the whole world.  

The fun thing about fashion editorial photography is being able to improvise with what the environment provides. Narragansett Beach in the evening is when the locals come out to surf, have dinner, swim, and relax. It was no surprise to bump into some of my friends (and some of their friends) and have them model for us. 

What started as “all business” turned into a laid-back hang with friends on the beach. Great light, location, people, and product made for a memorable photo session.

 

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Summer Vacation! by Ron Cowie

One of the very good things about summer is hitting the road and seeing new things. My wife, her dad and I did that very thing. We took a music tour of Memphis, Muscle Shoals, and Nashville. A good time was had by all. 

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Matunuck Family Portrait by Ron Cowie

Summertime is when families gather from far and wide and often want a portrait made. As the variables of ever expanding families and schedules; coupled with easier modes of long distance communication, make it a very rare thing to have everyone under one roof at the same time. marking the occasion with a portrait is smart.

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Art and Meditation by Ron Cowie

I make better, and considerably more images when I'm just taking a walk with my camera. I see things, make connections, and worry less about whether or not I'm wasting time and money.

Now, a little about what meditation is and isn't. I used to think successful meditation was sitting someplace and having a completely clear mind, at one with the universe. This is not true. Meditation is having all the thoughts that run through your head still existing, but you don't engage them.

Making pictures is a form a meditation for me. I still have those corrosive thoughts, I just try to keep them in the back row. The real challenge in making art isn't in the physical production of work, but not engaging in distracting thoughts. 

 

Look for Inspiration by Ron Cowie

I don't look to other photographers for inspiration. I admire lot of photographers, but I get ideas from other places besides photography. This is a about being an audience for someone else. Being audience is a different relationship than colleague. It's nice to see  someone else's creativity without deconstructing it. 

  • Detective novels. (I've been reading a lot of Elmore Leonard and Dennis Lehane)
  • Paintings (all sorts and era's)
  • The newspaper.
  • Local theatre
  • Industrial designers
  • Chefs
  • Listening to music

Most creatives have the same problems making work regardless of the field. Seeing how other's solve the similar challenges with different tools helps. It takes seeing something through someone else's eyes for me to make a connection. 

NESOP 2016 Class Syllabus for Alternative Processes by Ron Cowie

Alternative Processes
The New England School Of Photography
537 Commonwealth Ave Boston, MA


What are Alternative Processes?

Alternative processes is a catch-all phrase for 19th century photo techniques.  These techniques include, but are not limited to:
Cyanotypes
Wet Plate Collodion (Tintype, Orotone, Collodion Negatives)
Salt Printing (Albumen, Collodion Chloride, Salt Printing)
Platinum/palladium Printing
Gum Bichromate
Silver Bromide Emulsions (Gelatin Silver)

Primary Purpose
The goal of this class is to teach you how to make a photographic image using these historic methods. This is a hands on class and we will spend a considerable amount of time in the darkroom or developing rooms. This should be fun and engaging.

Grading
You will be graded on the following items:
Class participation
This is a hands-on class and you can only learn by doing.
Your attitude in class.
Don’t:
Read a book during class (yes, this has happened).
Do other schoolwork during my class.
Leave early.
Sleep
Come to class obviously under the influence of “what have you”.
       

Do:

  • Show up on time.
  • Participate
  • Ask any questionsrelated to the subject.
  • Bring extra material to share with the class.
  • Do extra work outside of class.
  • Have fun.
  • Help your classmates

Class Safety
Most of the materials we will be using requires mindfulness. Some is downright dangerous. The object of this class is to have fun and learn. Safety is the key to both those things occurring.  
You must have latex gloves when we are in the darkroom. Buy them
Goggles or safety glasses are not unwelcome or frowned upon.
Wear clothing that you are willing to get messy. An apron or jumpsuit are creative alternatives.
Move mindfully.

Weekly Schedule
Week 1: Introduction, Cyanotypes.
Week 2:  Cyanotypes, toning cyanotypes.
Week 3: Kallitype
Week 4: Platinum Printing
Week 5: Mystery!
Week 6: Collodion
Week 7: Collodion
Week 8: Collodion
Week 9: Collodion Chloride POP
Week 10: Exam and Thrill Night.

Books
There are no textbooks for this class. I will be posting helpful links and information on the material we will be covering. www.roncowiephoto.com/alt-processes

 

Tintypes: Hipster Coinage by Ron Cowie

The wet plate collodion process has many applications. The most historically popular and prevalent has been the tintype. A tintype is an image made on a blackened sheet of metal. Historically, the metal was "Japaned" by baking asphalt onto a metal plate. Today, the material of choice is trophy plate:  painted aluminum used for engraving on trophies. 

Wet plate collodion is a process where a plate of either glass or metal has a salted collodion based emulsion poured over it. The plate is gently  put into a silver nitrate solution to make it light sensitive. This is then loaded into a modified plate holder, exposed in camera and developed in the darkroom. The reason it is called "wet plate" is the plate is exposed while  wet. As the old whites guys said "We hold these truths to be self-evident."

What is Collodion?

Collodion is liquified cotton and is a terrific base for photographic purposes. It also is used in movie special effects to make fake scars. The only scars collodion will make for us are emotional ones. Let me explain.

Collodion Workflow

Using the wet plate collodion process to make images is like baking a loaf of bread from scratch every time you want a sandwich. In short, lots of things can go wrong for no clear reason. Here are a few:

  • Age of the collodion.
    • Freshly salted collodion is a lot more sensitive when it is first made. As it ages, the speed and contrast change. The speed goes down and the contrast increases. 
  • Ambient temperature and humidity
    • A collodion emulsion acts a lot different in the desert than it does on the beach. This is because as the emulsion dries, the speed and contrast change. So, when mixing the emulsion, you need to take the weather into consideration. 
  • Possible contamination of chemistry
    • The more you use the silver nitrate solution, the more crap gets in there that can possibly change the exposure.
    • Developer should be made fresh and fine tuned for the type of image you're trying to make. 
  • Collodion comes of the plate
    • You can make a great exposure, it is developed perfectly, and it falls off the glass plate because the emulsion is too thick. 

The list can go on but, suffice to say, working with collodion will sharpen your troubleshooting skills like nothing else. 

Photographers Using Collodion

Aside from the myriad of tattooed twenty-somethings making mug shot portraits of their friends and baristas, there are some very skilled photographers working with wet plate collodion. Click on their names to go to their websites.

Joni Sternbach

Joni's recent work is almost exclusively tintypes made on location.  Surfland examines and celebrate Surf culture around the world. The technical precision and masterful execution of her portraits in the circumstances in which they are made is truly awesome. I have a tremendous amount of respect for her work and vision. You should too.

David Emmit Adams

Okay, this guy has made a name for himself by making tintypes on rusted cans he found in the desert. The tintypes are really good and the concept is impressive. He has made a photographic object. and made it beautiful. Check out his portraits made on 35mm film canisters.  Its so good, you just want to pinch him for loving it. Love hurts.

Mark Osterman

If I were to have another big brother, Mark would be it. He has been my mentor in teaching, art making and alt process. He is a master of the wet plate collodion process and responsible for it's resurgence. He has written the definitive book on wet plate collodion.  It is the book I use and recommend for this process. His fine art work is flawless in it's craftsmanship and visually engaging. He is the process historian and teacher The George Eastman House

France Scully Osterman

France is Mark's wife and creative partner. She also is an artist in her own right and master of the wet plate collodion process. She also is a master of a variety of historical processes. While Mark is a little more precise, France has a more fluid palette. She gives private tutorials on several processes. Both are incredible teachers and visual thinkers. 

Will Dunniway

Will makes a strong connection between the history of photography and his subject matter. While his images are seen with a contemporary eye, his subjects are steeped in the 19th visual vernacular. I like the blend.

S. Gayle Stevens

I love her photograms using the tintype process. She's taking on some really important issues with her work and uses the imperfections of collodion as a vehicle to enhance the power of her ideas. 

Sally Mann

Unless you have been living in a cave looking for "my precious", you know who Sally Mann is. In an interesting twist, Mark and France Osterman taught Sally the wet plate collodion process. Sally has used the collodion process to break new ground in the photographic vernacular. This same work also opened the floodgates for a population of bad photographers who confuse her technique with their profound lack of technique or skill with this process. 

Luther Gerlach

Luther is a contemporary photographer using wet plate collodion to make beautiful, sophisticated landscapes and environmental nudes. His process involves mammoth cameras and vintage lenses. His work and vision are throughly modern. I strongly invite you to look through his portfolios for inspiration. 

Julia Margaret Cameron

She's one of the giants in the history of photography and if you don't know about her, for God's sake, change that. Click here, here, and here . That should get the ball rollling.

Tips and Techniques

Tell me more about this collodion business.

I could write a lot of information about this but, this is the internet and better people have already written about it.