Today Rfotofolio is pleased to share the work of Luther Gerlach, the recipent of the first Denis Roussel Award.

Would you please tell us a little about yourself? 

I am a hands-on person. I like to collect things, make things, cook things – whatever I’m doing there’s a tactile, or at least a sensual, reason I’m doing it.

Where did you get your photographic training?

My photographic training started young, tagging along with my father as he did anthropological fieldwork and helping with documentation, using the Canon Rangefinder that he bought in Japan in 1952. I went to art school in Minneapolis briefly, but I ended up instructing there before I managed to graduate. When I moved to California, I knew I had to get up to Carmel and study with some of the masters I had already learned so much from from their books. This led to a 2-year apprenticeship with Brett Weston, and some deeply formative workshops with Ruth Bernhard, Bruce Barnbaum, John Sexton, Henry Gilpin, Paul Caponigro, Eliot Porter, and Mark and Frances Osterman, among others.

Who has had an influence on your creative process? 

Needless to say, the list above – especially Brett. Also, inanimate objects: I have been collecting 19th and 20th century instruction manuals since the 1980’s and these have been some of my most-used technical resources, opening up many processes to me over the years. The recipes in these manuals serve as stimuli when I’ve run into a creative slump. Every time I open one I see something I want to try, new challenges to experiment with, and this is a major source of creative energy for me.

Why do you create?

I can’t help but create. It’s as innate as breathing, and if it’s not photography, it’s something else. I view making things as an opportunity to give gifts, it really feels selfish not to be creating.

Finestra 4 © Luther Gerlach
Finestra 5 © Luther Gerlach

What draws you to collodion work? 

After working in carbon, platinum, kallitypes, and other handmade processes, it seemed like a natural evolution to progress to wet plate. I like the one-of-one aspect. Ambrotypes and and tintypes are beautiful images of unparalleled, grainless detail, yes, but they are also precious, glowing objects to be treasured. On top of that, I never liked the store-bought elements of being a photographer, even during my days with Brett. I don’t want the camera/paper/film company’s input, I want to make it all myself. There are so many constraints in photography, and I just want to have control over every element I possibly can.

Please tell us about an image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time. 

Anne Brigman’s, The Heart of the Storm, c 1912. The sensuality of this image, the flow of line between the human form and the twisted, gnarled cypress tree, this image captured my imagination at a young age and never let go. It is such a deeply layered image, 3 rounds of painting and rephotographing the negative, and I’ve always been fascinated by how she embraced the fabrication of reality inherent to photography. The light and motion she creates is an aesthetic I’m always chasing, every time I go out shooting I’m looking for those cypress trees. This image is also shot into the light, forces you to see line and question what lies in the shadows.

Photosynthetic © Luther Gerlach

What image of yours would you say taught you an important lesson?

A couple of years ago I was invited to exhibit a piece in a group show featuring alternative process photography with a directive to take the art form in new directions. For every show, I always want to create something completely new, and I was really excited about showing at this venue and the creativity it called for. I ended up creating an internally lit, walnut encased, double-sided triple relievo ambrotype, which sounds more like an iceskating move than a photograph. It was incredibly labor intensive and time consuming, too elaborate to digitally reproduce, and exceedingly expensive and risky to ship. This show was probably the best-publicized exhibition I’ve ever been part of, but my piece wasn’t included in any of it because it was near impossible to talk about it and there were no usable images of it. Needless to say, it didn’t sell, and it ended up breaking on its way back to me. This is a piece that I loved working on and thinking about, even today I keep a broken half of it hanging on my wall. It’s beautiful, even broken, but if there’s no audience for it and no way of generating an audience, then it’s hard to call it an artistic success. Art is not just about creating for your own pleasure, it’s also about distilling and communicating your passions to an audience.

What makes a good day for you creatively speaking?

When I start the day with a specific goal in mind, and at the end of it I’ve produced something different and better than I imagined.

If you could spend a day with any other photographer or artist living or passed who would it be?

I would love to spend a day with Frances Frith photographing the pyramids. Photographing in that kind of intense heat is so immensely difficult, and he achieved such high quality, I’d just love to watch him do it. It just so happens I own a 16×20” British field camera that belonged to him, so I’ve often felt like I’m photographing with him.

What equipment have you found essential in the making of your work?

There’s a quote by Ansel Adams that is burned into my memory but impossible to find any record of: “If you have more than one camera, you always have the wrong camera.” With that being said, I have a collection of roughly 75 large format cameras and over 250 lenses, so I must be getting it wrong a lot! Until recently, very little of my work has involved enlarging, so the size of the negative is the size of the image. If I want to make a large print this way, I need to be using a large camera. I work with cameras up to 30×40”. Most of the cameras I use are antiques, however, I also enjoy building my own cameras, most recently a 22×30” camera in 2008.

Whats hangs on your walls?

Even though I have a large collection of historical prints, my walls are covered with my own work floor to ceiling. This has less to do with vanity than storage – after 30 years of photographing full time it is a real challenge to safely store my work.

© Luther Gerlach

Whats on the horizon?

Since the Thomas Fire last December, I have been shooting 8×10” negatives of the burn and regrowth in the national parks in Ventura County. So far, I’ve printed a small fraction of those negatives enlarged to 16×20″ and 30×40” and toned with ashes and sulfuric water collected from the origin point of the fire at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula. These toning agents superimpose flame-like licks of color over the black and white burnt landscapes. I have over 200 unprinted negatives and my goal is to print the best of those at 4×5’ in advance of upcoming museum shows at the Santa Paula Museum.

To learn more the about the work of Luther Gerlach please visit his site at Luther Gerlach.


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