Gary Briechle, Rockland, Maine: Wet-plate collodion camera slows life down into intimate moments
There’s no question about it: Gary Briechle’s photographs are unsettling. They haunt. Briechle’s portraits of his sons, aging parents, fellow Mainers, and even himself, at first glance seem far from loving testimonials to the grace and beauty of humanity; and yet for Briechle, who employs the hands-on and time-consuming collodion process to create these achingly authentic, frozen-moments-in-time, intimacy and reverence is exactly what his craft is about.
INTERVIEW WITH PHOTOGRAPHER, GARY BRIECHLE
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: You prefer to photograph people you’ve known over time. Instead of going out and finding new subjects for each shoot, you keep coming back to the same individuals again and again. Some, children of your original subjects, you have photographed for all of their lives. What is the advantage of this?
Gary Briechle: Each of these people who graciously allow me to photograph them is a gift. Just as it’s a gift to have this be what my day is about.
Life is short. What people see in this book: life has a span. I look at my boys and remember where I was, and see my parents and see where I’m headed.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: It’s quite remarkable that your subjects, some of them your own family members, your mother, allow you to photograph them so honestly.
Gary Briechle: Yes. My mother especially. I’ve seen pictures of her and my father when they were in their twenties, and they were quite movie star handsome; but now, you know, they’re eighty-five.
There are some rough pictures of my mother in the book. The one of her right after her eye surgery.
Gary Briechle: And then the close-up of her deteriorating teeth.
I don’t ever set out to take harsh pics, I like a good belly laugh with my sons as much as anyone. But people actually don’t spend the majority of their lives smiling. This is real life.
I know that these photos are a bit hard to look at. She is brave, my mom. I don’t care what age a woman is; this is hard to be that truthful. But she is letting her portrait be honest. She lets me photograph her as she is.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: When you begin a shoot, do you have an idea in your mind of what you want to capture?
Gary Briechle: I don’t do ‘projects.’ I look at something that attracts my eye and see where it takes me. After a while, if you shoot enough of something, it comes together as a cluster and starts to mean something. But if the idea comes first, it closes doors around you. You go into town to shoot such-and-such, but you see something at the light that attracts you and you decide to take a different turn, and so you end up shooting something else entirely, something far richer. If there’s too much intention, it blocks out the mystery, doesn’t allow the intuition to come in. You might make a decent image, but it’s not thrilling,
When I make a photograph, it has the feeling of a miracle. Almost like a zen thing. The good pictures, I can’t take full credit for them. You don’t make a photograph so much as receive it. I wander around with my eyes open, and I’m just hoping for the best. Sometimes things that you’d never think would be special, you just hit upon, not fully understanding at the time why.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: I remember reading that you were originally a sculptor. Does that affect what draws your attention? Also perhaps why you prefer using a collodion camera, this heavy-labor, very much hands-on process of picture-taking?
Gary Briechle: Yes, I like feeling like I’m making an object when I make each photograph. These glass plates where you can see the silver sitting on top of it: I like that a whole day goes by and I’ve got maybe one good picture, because these pictures are always special. The more the making of the image feels like it comes from you, the more special to you it feels.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Can you give me an example of how it works shooting with a collodion camera?
Gary Briechle: Well there’s a picture in the book of a little kid, he’s five now, but he was less than a year old at the time. He was lying on the couch in a diaper. Now the collodion process requires a lot of light. It records not in an instant but over time, so during one exposure, a woman’s hair might blow a little in the wind, or someone might shift their position just a bit. And all of that becomes built into the final image. When things change mid-shoot like that, this subtle movement can create a dreamy aspect as well as an absolutely beautiful clarity. Any given image can contain both these things at once.
So taking this picture of the little boy, if he had moved while I was making the image, it still could have been a good thing. I mean movement in even a sleeping one-year-old is pretty much to be expected, right? And if he had moved, what would have come out in the final image could have been maybe his head being in focus, but the part of his body that would have shifted, like his arms and legs, might have recorded in two or three different places.
Only that’s not at all what happened. What happened was pretty much of a miracle: He didn’t move at all. I mean, not even his chest moved from taking and releasing a breath, and people’s chests always move. So what I ended up recording was this moment in time that just kind of gave me goosebumps. And it’s a moment that will never be recorded quite that same way again. With the collodion process, you can never take the same image twice; the moments are just stretched too far apart. And then when you enter in all the other variables, how long you let it soak in the chemicals, how clean that particular chemical bath is, how long you make each exposure, where the light fell… No image can ever be duplicated.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: I imagine this has given you a sense of the transient nature of life? A very real appreciation for each moment being precious. And that once gone, we can never get it back.
Gary Briechle: Ok, you know, I just got tingles. That’s very true! Yes, that’s it exactly.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: I also love how these long exposures contribute to bringing out such honest expressions on the faces of the people you photograph.
Gary Briechle: Yes! There’s this little kid, Arizona–she’s eleven now, and I started photographing her when she was one, and I hope it goes on that I can continue to photograph her for the rest of my life. Anyway, something happens to her when she tries to hold still. To me it’s very deep and I can’t explain why.
Gary Briechle: A lot of times I just try to take a picture of her face, and you might say, “Well, what’s the idea here?” But something may happen. Maybe it’s too sunny, so she’ll look a certain way, or maybe the wind is blowing, or maybe that day she’s very, very still, so you can see the pores in her skin. Or if she moves, maybe the effect is going to be ghostly. This is something I’ve learned, and much of it has come through photographing her. I can do the same thing each time, but it will never be the same. Because something different is always happening. Change is always happening. So whenever possible, I like to repeat things, photograph the same people, because that’s when you can notice those subtle changes, those nuances.
These are the kinds of little things you just don’t see when you’re flying by in the car.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Yes. Or when you’re multi-tasking many things at once. Or constantly “plugged-in,” your attention on both everything and nothing.
Gary Briechle: Yes, that’s why I’m such an admirer of Mike Disfarmer. His stuff is so simple, but you have to slow down long enough to see, to appreciate what he’s capturing. Someone flipping through his work very rapidly might say that on the surface his images are very static. No big spectacle going on, no bright colors, no crazy angles. But that’s what is so mysterious to me.
You’re on this planet for only so long, you want to try to make it mean something. Does all that flash help you find meaning? Or is it just a distraction?
Taking these photos, it’s very emotional for me. I feel lucky. I feel indebted to whatever made this happen. It’s about empathy. Meaning. Connection.