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Photography professors exhibit old-style photos

In Defense of the Dark Art photography exhibit. No Harry Potter involved.

This gallery show by Neal Holland and Kyle Agee is completely comprised of wet plate photography, a method that uses silver nitrate, which can often turn fingers black.

The two photographers wanted a challenge, a real return to non-digital, hands-on photography. Why switch out digital photography for the 1800s method?

Agee, an adjunct professor at John Brown University, did so for the adventure.

“Digital is easy,” Agee said. “I’m inspired by the idea of getting involved in developing beauty from new materials. It’s a challenge.”

Holland, associate professor of photography, said he wanted to do it even though he is a digital photographer and always will be.

“I’ve come to a point in my life that I’m able to gravitate toward the aesthetic image crafting that is wet plate photography,” Holland explained.

Holland loved the excitement of toying with such persnickety methodology, testing variables, and, when finally succeeding, feeling a deep sense of fulfillment.

The process

Imagine this: an ice fishing tent, a large 11” by 14” handmade wet plate photography camera, two determined men, chemicals, 20 minutes and counting from the time they take the shot to development completion.

The photographers coat the wet plate, load it into the camera, capture the photo and then move into the tent for developing.

The subjects

Holland and Agee wanted to capture buildings because they were contemporary pieces at the time of the wet plate process.

They traveled all across Arkansas visiting buildings from the 1800s with the intention of casting modern light on dated subjects. They wondered if modern perspective would alter their photographs from the originals.

Shooting outdoors presented a challenge because the photographers could not control the variables, such as temperature and humidity. This led to what is known in the gallery as the “Wall of Uh-Ohs.”

They also took pictures indoors, and both men were relieved to set their own control over the unknown.

Another element which sets this exhibit apart is that, in addition to the wet plate photographs, the artists included their equipment. It gives the viewer a sense of what they went through to complete their ambitious project.

Job Smith, a junior illustration major, said the gallery was particularly interesting because they “developed the photos on site, which sets this collection apart from others.”

Junior graphic design major Emily Ayers said the difficult process created the exhibit’s worth.

“What they went through to get one shot is incredible,” she said. “But the alternate process of the photographs was truly unique and very honest to their subjects. The compositions and processing are conceptually spot on and make otherwise ordinary images into a story.”

When it comes to continuing the wet plate process, Holland said: “I don’t ever intend to stop. I don’t even know if I could stop.”