Join us for a wonderful conversation with France Scully Osterman.
Please tell us about your Sleep series.
A portrait of someone sleeping is intimate and unpretentious. For my Sleep series, I photographed people sleeping in my studio. It takes a certain amount of trust and confidence to be photographed in such a vulnerable way, so I asked loved ones, friends and acquaintances if they would come and let me document their sleep.
My sleepers arrived first thing in the morning, sometimes, still wearing their pajamas. Soothing music lulled them to sleep as I began to work.
While composing, I was careful not to stare too much at my subjects to avoid waking them. The film is made from scratch, so there’s more activity than soft music can mask. Back and forth between darkroom and camera, footsteps fall on a squeaky floor, the smell of ether drifts through the air and the sound of running water starts and stops. Some sleepers turn over in the middle of an exposure which could take several minutes. This meant repositioning a cumbersome studio stand bearing a weighty antique camera. But as long as they slept, I continued to make negatives.
The Sleep images offer contradictions: a sense of voyeurism juxtaposed with a moment of vulnerability and innocence; reminiscent of post-mortem, yet full of movement and energy.
Each step in creating the negatives is a visual and tactile experience. From carefully and meticulously cleaning and polishing the glass plate, to pouring the plate with collodion, sensitizing, developing by inspection, fixing, drying and varnishing, there are so many ways in which the crafting of the image relies on the skills of the photographer. The experience in making them is sensual, and so are the results. As an artist, I find that very seductive.
The artifacts of the collodion negatives are reminders that they are handcrafted. Collodion is to photography what watercolor is to painting, fast yet requiring exquisite manipulation. Also like painting, I was drawn to subtle artifacts of the process that both support the imagery and are a signature of the artist.
Salt prints have no binder and a matte finish. The image layer is imbedded in the paper, so the texture of the paper plays an important role. Though I prefer the surface to be matte, I decided to add a final layer of wax to give them a satin finish, which lends itself better to the imagery. The wax also gives added depth the deepest shadows and helps protect the prints from changing over time. The finished prints are unpressed and remain lightly rumpled, giving them a subtle, tactile quality like the smooth surface of bed linens.
How did you first get involved with photography and the alternative processes?
My father introduced me to photography. He was a painter and though he primarily used his photography as support for his paintings, he was also a natural photographer. He documented our family life with thoughtful, often funny slides.
This was a man who loved technology and was interested in sharing that with us. He showed me how to use a 35 mm camera when I was a kid. I began shooting with it around the house, and later, borrowed his Rollei for my last semester of college abroad. It was a six month trip and unfortunately I didn’t realize until I got there that the light meter was broken. Back then, before cell phones and the internet, there was no easy way to contact him, so I was on my own. It was challenging, but I figured out how to shoot without the light meter and I got some great shots. This was my first experience with learning to look at the light and estimate exposure using my eyes. I had always loved drawing and painting, but now I was hooked on photography.
When Mark and I began dating in 1990, he was teaching photography full-time. He taught me how to develop my own film and make prints, first with 35 mm then larger formats. Soon I found myself spending a lot of time in the darkroom. At the same time, Mark was making images with collodion, so that was also a natural transition for me. Like Mark, I was drawn to the painterly quality of collodion and the idea of making your own film. In a short time, I went from 35 mm to 2 1/4” silver gelatin film to large format collodion.
Within a few years I switched careers. Having worked in the biomedical field for twelve years, I gave up my “real” job to follow my bliss — and I have never looked back. Several publications began to hire me as a freelance writer and photographer. This was before digital, so it was a tremendous amount of work, and for not much money. Imagine covering the event, making notes while photographing it, writing the story, developing the film, making contact sheets and prints, then rewriting the article (rewriting is better writing)… and getting it to the publisher with the photographs, often on the same day!
Soon after, I was hired as a full-time editor and continued contributing articles and photographs. It was all great training with deadlines and editors pressing me forward. It also helped improve my standards for my own work. Above all, there was my most demanding teacher, Mark, who pushed me further and expected more than anyone else. Imagine you’re taking an advanced class without end. He taught me all the techniques of photography. For my art, he taught me that making art well is hard work and the importance of being self-critical. While I may have been born with some talent, without Mark’s influence I would not be the photographer or artist that I am today.
What process do you favor?
Well, collodion, of course. I gradually began making my living with collodion in the nineties, selling my work through galleries, teaching, publishing and lectures. My first solo show was my Sleep series, in New York City at Howard Greenberg’s 292 gallery in Soho in 2002.
Collodion has been good to me and is still my favorite process, but certainly not the only one. Of course, I also like salt prints, but also some of the really early processes like photogenic drawing and some obscure processes, too.
What is the “perfect” day of photography like for you?
Having the chemicals mixed and ready, and plates prepared the day before, making plates in our skylight studio all day long, with my favorite music playing. The ideas that have been playing in my head are appearing on the plate… That’s perfect. The only thing that ties with that is making prints from really good negatives. That is incredibly rewarding.
Who and or what inspires you?
There’s a number of photographers whose work I admire, but it’s the 19th and turn of the century photographer’s work I tend to think of first; Julia Margaret Cameron and Robert Demachy, plus Anne Brigman, Roger Fenton, and John Thompson to name a few.
More often I’m inspired by paintings. Genres vary greatly, but typically c. 1900 and earlier. I also grew up watching my father paint. The paintings he did at that time were more representational, mostly portraits, always in oil. I loved the process, the layering and the style of paintings. A painting he did of my sister hangs in our living room, it has a wonderful sense of light and a favorite of mine.
Sometimes it is a process that inspires, like Mark’s experiments. He’s always playing with some early photographic process no one else is using. I find that the earliest, most primitive photography is the most painterly. But it then becomes a matter of finding the right fit with an image or a body of work, and often that never happens. It has to be the right fit, or it’s not worth doing. The process is not the art, it’s just a support for the image.
All these things I find inspiring and influence my choices for things like style, process, composition or lighting. But it’s life experience that drives me to create a body of work. It has to be personal.
What do you feel makes a great photograph?
An image which sticks in my head is a daguerreotype of a baby by Southworth and Hawes.
I’m told it’s a post-mortem, but honestly most post-mortems don’t fool anyone — they look dead. As you may imagine, I’ve seen a lot of sleeping people now and sadly, more than my share of dead ones, too. To me, this baby appears to have life, perhaps it’s the draping of the clothing, or the lighting. If it really is a post-mortem, it just shows what amazing talent they had.
An image should say something new but I also want my work to have universal appeal, hopefully on many levels. Taking something that is common or ordinary and making it look extraordinary is one of the things that makes a great image.
Sometimes that approach can be planned, though more often I shoot from the hip, so to speak. If you feel it’s working on a gut level, and it’s something you are passionate about, that can come through. I’m told my Altar Stone image has some of those qualities. It was the last plate I made on a month-long expedition to Ireland with Mark. It was our first time shooting with wet-plate collodion abroad, using a portable darkroom. I wanted to shoot this scene for weeks, but kept waiting for the right opportunity. Finally, the last day I could shoot, it was raining. I made a three-minute exposure, and during the last-minute, the sun came out. The changing light was recorded on the plate. Sometimes I get lucky.
Is there a photograph that has made a lasting impression on you ( someone else’s photography)?
There have been a few images which I have in my head that students have done. One is by David Prifti, called “Ophelia”. Not surprising I would love that image, but David had a talent for choosing the right process to elevate a particular subject. Sadly, he passed away in November 2011. His own work and that of his students are a testament to his talent and dedication as an artist-educator.
I grew up looking at my fathers photographs and slides. He took the first sleeping photos that I ever saw and they have really stuck with me. They were a series of slides taken of my cousin, Jay when he was a newborn baby. I was pretty little at the time, but I remember that I was awed. Naturally, he took time to get the right view and lighting. I remember thinking those images were the most beautiful things I’d ever seen.
There was also this one snapshot my father took of my mother before I was born. She had just had a baby and was lying in the comfort of her bed, smiling at him. It appears unposed with a very natural expression. This was something I always wanted to do in my portraiture, to capture the essence of the subject without pretense.
Would you please tell us about your current work.
The Bed series is a natural extension of the Sleep, series. Removing the subject, now the viewer becomes the “sleeper.”
The bed is tactile, sensual, sexual; our most intimate place. A powerful symbol on many levels, it is where we are conceived and born, and often where we die. As our individual “home base,” it offers the nightly promise of comfort, rest, warmth and security. I think it would be hard not to be lured by its magnetic power. This place begs to be touched and I wanted the images and final prints to reflect that.
One reason I chose to use collodion negatives for the bed images was because the artifacts of the process are reminders that they are handcrafted. There is a balancing act when choosing subject matter in this medium, due to the color or the quality of light needed in making the image and the relative sensitivity (or insensitivity) of the process. You can see this effect especially in Twisted Sheet.
Wet-collodion also offers amazingly fine resolution. This allows me to create eight by ten inch negatives, then grainlessly enlarge them to life-size. I’m often drawn to the concept of yin and yang: what may seem like opposite forces are actually interconnected and complementary. In this work it’s a balance between the kind of detail you can only get with collodion and the painterly quality produced by the lens.
Pigment prints seemed the right choice for the final image. They allow me to scale the size of the image appropriately on a high quality watercolor paper. Like the salt prints, they are waxed which gives the deep shadows added depth and satiny texture. But perhaps more important, because they are unglazed, the wax also helps to protect the image surface.
It seemed essential for the viewer to experience the scale of the prints while enabling them to experience their tactile quality. So, treating them as if they were landscapes, I hung them like Japanese scrolls.
Any upcoming projects you would like to share with us?
I have so many projects I would love to get to. Some are very personal and will muster all of my courage to begin. It’s no longer a matter of finding the time, as most artists know, it’s making the time.
Is there a process or method that you are looking forward to trying?
Yes, many, but I’ll offer two examples. Ivorytypes are really appealing to me. I have experimented with them and demonstrated them to Christopher James’ class. They are complicated to make, involve making a negative, several prints, hand-coloring and using hot wax. Nevertheless, I am planning a series, though it’s way too early to discuss in detail.
The other one I’ve always loved is gum. My first tests with gum dichromate printing are from a negative I made of my former intern, Shaylyn. I tested two different papers, colors and techniques for applying the gum. I didn’t think I would share this, but am really excited about it and thought it would be helpful to show others the groundwork for determining a new body of work and choosing a process.
Demachy’s, “Etude”, was definitely an inspiration. His work is photogravure, but I thought gum would give me the effect I was looking for. Though I much prefer the look of single color prints, I could see playing with a second color in a very minimal way.
I had seen this image several times, and created my negative much later. It was just a test shot, and not a negative I could use for salt printing (my usual printing process) but I thought it might come in handy for another process so I held onto it. I made the prints years later and they’ve been sitting around. Whenever I run across them, I feel that I must continue this work. Still haven’t decided on what the work will be but the germ is there….
Any stories you would like to share?
There are two that come to mind. Both are about my portraits.
In 1996, while Mark and I traveled around Ireland with our portable darkroom making collodion negatives, I took a portrait of the daughter of a woman that we stayed with. It was a half-minute exposure, with no head brace, so she had slightly moved which gave it a painterly effect.
I was delivering it, along with several other prints for an exhibit in the mid to late 1990s. Standing in an elevator with this framed portrait leaning against my leg, a young teenage boy looked at it with a puzzled expression. He said, “I don’t get it. Is it a photograph, or is it a painting?” Delighted, I replied, “You do get it!”
My husband, Mark was the impetus for my Sleep series. One morning in late summer, I awoke before Mark, and watching him, was inspired to capture him sleeping. I photographed him on two collodion plates, one ambrotype, and one negative. This was possible because we were living in a studio which gave me immediate access to our darkroom and camera which were only steps away.
After the ambrotype was published in Coming Into Focus in 2000, the reactions I received spurred me to do a body of work.
For years I assumed that Mark was my first “Sleeper.” However, after my exhibit in 2002, my sister, Sharon told me that she was. She reminded me that when I was about eleven or twelve years old, I had taken her photograph with 35 mm slide film. I posed her laid out on the grass as if she were sleeping.
Sometimes the germ of a body of work starts much earlier than we imagine. It this case, I suppose it was rolling around in my head for almost thirty years, waiting for the right medium.
Thank you France for all your time and for sharing your art with us. Please see more of France’s work on her site, at Scully & Osterman Studio.