© Willie Osterman
© Willie Osterman

Rfotofolio is honored to have Willie Osterman as one of the our jurors for the 2017 Call for Entry.

Here is the interview we did with him in 2014 when our call for submission was based on Inspiration.  What inspires you and how do you hope to inspire others ?

Our Juror, Joanne Teasdale undertook a difficult task and chose the work of Willie Osterman.

Here is Joanne’s statement about his work:

“This album of ten photographs is my choice for the award.  When you talk about raising the bar and inspiring other photographers to be better at what they do, I feel that this body of work has done just that.  There is a lot of good photography in the submissions but this series takes the viewer into an intimacy where we experience the profound transformative effect of such an illness, a transmutation on the cellular as well as the emotional level.”

Thank you Joanne for your vision, care, and time.  It was a pleasure working with you.

The following is our interview with Willie Osterman.

Would you please tell us a little about yourself?

I am an active artist and educator.  My most recent work is using collodion and making sculptures incorporating images and artifacts. The ChemoToxic series started this process. My website has a good history of my work.

How did you get started photography?

I began in college and was quite shy and the use of the camera gave me an excuse to gain access into people’s lives and to travel. I continue to document many things in my personal life although what I show is only a small part of it.  I am often asked what I will do with all the work I make and I’m not quite sure, maybe it is something for retirement or when I can’t get around as easily as I can now.

ChemoToxic © Willie Osterman
ChemoToxic © Willie Osterman

“ChemoToxic” is a very personal series please tell us about it?

I was on a Fulbright in Croatia and six days after I returned I drove my wife Michele to the emergency room due to stomach pains.  A CAT scan revealed tumor and she underwent emergency surgery the next day.

With the realization that she had cancer our lives changed in an instant.  There was no way to make sense of the diagnosis, as she is one of the healthiest persons I have ever met.  On that memorable day (Valentines Day!) I found myself unable to make sense of it and quickly realized that I needed to look forward and not try to reason why.

When this happened it was the first time in my life that I was unable to record the events around me, as I just wanted it to go away.  I wanted no record.  I froze.  It wasn’t until after the hopeful pathology report that I was able to begin to consider documenting as we began to rebuild our lives.

To capture this transition I felt that an antiquated process would give me perspective on this when we will be able to (hopefully) look back on this “historic” part of our life together.  Also, learning the wet plate collodion technique became my ‘therapy’ while coping with the changes we faced.  A parallel process occurred.  I was learning about cancer while learning about the Wet Plate Collodion Process. An amazing metaphor evolved as I realized that as Michele’s health improved the quality of the work improved.

She began Chemotherapy on March 30th.  I spent the spring care taking Michele and making images.  She was quite amazing in her willingness to sit for up to sixty-seconds for an exposure.  I asked her why she wanted to sit for these images and she said she was also looking for a diversion so why not.  I have been photographing her for over thirty years and she is an amazing model.

So, I started to learn how to use this complicated and sometimes frustrating photochemical process, as she underwent her own ‘chemical process’ of Taxol and Carboplatin.  ChemoToxic is the term used to describe the impact of chemotherapy on the body, specifically 48-72 hours after getting dosed.  Toxic waste products are present in body (urine, stool, saliva, secretions).  The patient is told not to exchange body fluids with others, nor let children or pets play near the patient’s toilet.  When I heard this term, it kept resounding in my head.  In essence, the body is being poisoned with the intention of killing the fast-growing cancer cells.

The Collodion process is, as many know, an antiquated technique developed in the 1850s.  The chemicals used include silver nitrate, nitric acid, cadmium bromide, grain alcohol, lavender oil, and potassium cyanide among others.  The result is a one-of-a-kind image printed on a glass plate known as an Ambrotype.  I believe the created images reflect fear, hope, hard work, beauty and transformation.

This portfolio includes twenty-seven unique (one of a kind) images in twenty-one frames.  Individual image sizes are approximately 5×7 inches.


ChemoToxic © Willie Osterman
ChemoToxic © Willie Osterman
© Willie Osterman
© Willie Osterman

What effect do you hope this work has on others?

When I made the work I was totally selfish and did not care about anything other than the documentation and diversion it provided. It was, as I mentioned, therapy.  Now as times goes on and I travel the exhibit I am finding that many respond to it and unfortunately almost everyone knows someone who has had cancer.

The work was exhibited at Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester along with another body of work. (an ambrotype sculpture of self-portraits looking at myself wondering what “I” may have) Michele and I decided to have a fund-raiser to support the cancer center where she had her treatments and the outpouring of support (we raised over $6,000) and interest was very moving.  As part of the opening reception (where we had over five-hundred visitors)  I was going to shave my head as part of the fundraiser and we ended up with sixteen others joining in to show solidarity.  My website has a video that was made of the event.

What affect did it have on you and the subject (only if you care to share).

It documented what we went through and if you look at the first images and the final image there is an amazing transition in her spirit.  It can be seen in her eyes.  The early images show fear and uncertainty where as the final image shows confidence and strength.  Looking back on it I am very happy we created the images but when I made the image of her with the Japanese shirt on and I saw the look in her eyes I knew that the project was over and finally I felt I could put this part of my life behind.  It was too close and I needed some distance.  It felt great and empowering to realize that and accept it. Michele felt the same way and it became a milestone for us.

Which photographers and other artists’ work do you admire?

Oh boy, that is such a tough question as it always changes.  I remember being in grade school and being asked what is my favorite color.  I always had trouble answering it as I like them all.  It is always influenced by what I am currently researching. Actually this may be a bit surprising but often it is some of my students work.  I know many will disagree but there is nothing like being jealous of your students work.  Actually I have a piece in an exhibition in NY that was inspired by my students.  One day in a graduate seminar we discussed the idea of being over educated and freezing when you’re creating artwork because you get lost in so much theory.  I asked if it is possible to create a piece that is totally based on intuition and that night I woke up and realized I had to try it.  I was surprised and impressed with the results. (I’ve included an image below)

A few weeks ago I was in Croatia for the International Photography Festival Organ Vida (Eye Life/Health) and met several photographers who I really admire.  Two were young Russian photographers.  One was Olga Ingurazova and her work entitled “Scars of Independence” where she is documenting the affect of Abkhazia and its decision to become and independent country. The work is extremely powerful.  Another Russian photographer Egor Rogalev’s work entitled “Synchronicity” documents the situation happening in the European part of the former Soviet Union.  He is documenting the effects that transformation of urban and social environment has on human behavior and individual perception of life.  Recently I have also been fascinated by William Wegman’s “other” work beyond the dogs.  His paintings and writings on nature are quite amazing.

Would you share with us an image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time.

If I go way back to when I started as a photo student I would have to say that it is Ansel Adams’ image of Mt. Williamson in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1944.  I saw this image when I first became a photographer and it changed my life.  I was working on a research paper and when this image was presented and I froze and realized that was what I wanted to do; to travel, explore and make images like this.  I also made a promise to meet this man and through a friendship with Alan Ross, who I assisted in the production of Mr. Adams special edition prints I was able to spend time with him.  Quite an amazing experience!  If you look at my early work you can see the influence of that single image.  Harry Callahan made images that have stayed with me over time.  He had the same formal qualities of Ansel and he took them home, as I say, in the images he made of his family in Chicago.  This work helped me to appreciate that same landscape beauty at home.  I believe that is shown in the “ChemoToxic” series.

Please tell us about your process and what the perfect day for you.

To make an ambrotype takes most of a day.  I am making unique ambrotypes, which means I am only making one and using it as a positive, not as negative for making copies.  In this age of digital everything I really like the idea that there is only one.  The night before that perfect day, I get organized with my idea and check to be sure I have adequate chemistry.  I just started a new project, I am constructing an archeological dig to photograph that includes not only bones and artifacts, but also contemporary articles.  I like to make sure the composition is mostly organized then I begin to photograph.  The collodion process always gives you surprises so you must be flexible and able to work with them.  It does not mean I give up control, it means I understand the variables and adapt my concept.  This new piece will have about forty-eight, 11×4 plates that will be mounted on a wall and collectively it will create sort of a cubistic abstract landscape that includes the dig.  Lots of these individual plates need to work in unison so there are lots of decisions to be made.  I like to work slowly and enjoy the process. It is a ritual for me and quite meditative.  If I get one plate a day I am happy.  That is why I so enjoy my summers.  I don’t teach as many workshops as I used to, so as to have more time for my work.

What challenges do you face as an artist?

There is never enough time and there are too many politics in the art world.  They both frustrate me.

How do you view this time in the history of photography?

It is very exciting.  There is something out there for everyone.  Everyone is a photographer now but the really good work, as always, is hard to make.  As the world is going so digital I enjoy going the other way.  I teach at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and there is so much technology around that students in the photo arts department get swept up in it.  Don’t get me wrong, I love the advances but feel a loss of the traditional methods.  Some colleagues, I believe, encourage some of this.  I mean if you look at it, as Robert Heinecken said, “the purpose of art is to give form to ideas”.  I wonder why so much work looks the same.  It’s curious to me.

How do you over come a creative block?

I work harder.  Creative blocks are a natural part of the process.  When I’m stuck, I push harder and break through to something new.  This is a necessary part of the process.  Who has not done a project and has not gotten frustrated and sick of it?  I have this special relationship with my work and any relationship is challenging at times.  It takes time, passion, and determination. Too many people give up and move on to other projects and start another relationship.  That is also why there are so many people getting divorced as well.  Too many don’t want to put in the effort and stick to it.

© Willie Osterman
© Willie Osterman


Thank you Willie, for sharing your work and your words.
To see some of Willie’s work from his Masking “Portraits” series just click on the name.
To learn more about the Willie Osterman please visit his page at Willie Osterman.



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