The COVID-19 pandemic has shrouded much of the world in uncertain and challenging times that we are all forced to cope and adjust to the so-called “new normal.” Social distancing, quarantine, and lockdown have become the buzzwords of the first half of 2020. Despite being forced to stay home for months, many photographers and artists haven’t stopped harnessing their creativity in response to the realities brought about by the pandemic. Among them is Austrian wet plate artist Markus Hofstaetter, who, apart from using his expertise to express his own sentiments on the current situation, also came up with a great initiative to inspire his fellow creatives to share their own.
We recently got in touch with Markus to get some insights into how our fellow film photographers and even wet plate artists have been using their craft to interpret themes surrounding the new normal. As with many portrait photographers, Markus enjoys working with people and capturing their unique personalities using the wet collodion process. With home quarantine and lockdowns in effect, however, he has been limited to self-portraits for his wet plate works, just like most photographers today. He has since been inspired to showcase the creativity of other photographers and artists through United Art Gallery, a submission-driven, online platform dedicated to art made in response to COVID-19. If you’ve been looking for some inspiration to keep shooting today with whatever medium you have — including traditional photographic processes — we’re sure our chat with Markus about his work and United Art Gallery is worth the read.
Hello Markus! Can you briefly introduce yourself and your work to our readers?
Short is always difficult because my work is pretty versatile. I’m an artist, alchemist, and photographer from Austria in a village called Muckendorf. Apart from my photography, I also write for a physical photography magazine (c’t Digitale Fotografie), post on my blog and YouTube channel, and sometimes work for dein-sternenkind.eu (lately very seldom).
My main subjects are humans. I love working with people to capture their personality or soul using the wet plate process. I like getting to know them days before the shoot to have an Idea what kind of portrait fits best.
I love the process of preparing for that one perfect portrait. Sometimes, this takes hours, days, weeks, or months. After such preparation, it’s very rewarding to hold an image in your hand that you had in your mind a long time ago. I also have a “mental” issue that sometimes makes my life tough. I simply cannot stop. If I start a project, I have to finish it the best way possible for me. Sometimes, such things take half a year or longer from my life. It just consumes a lot from me — day and night.
No wonder I ended up with the collodion wet plate process. If it would be easy it would not be as much fun. I get bored pretty easy which is one of the main reasons I work with many different things.
I like the analog workflow a lot, but also enjoy digital work, even if it’s done using an iPhone.
How did you begin working with wet plate cameras? What is it about this traditional photography process that continues to interest you?
I started to go pro very late. It was about 2008 when I photographed pool billiard tournaments around the world. After that, I did more local photography and got bored at some point with digital photography. That was when I went to buy a Mamiya 645 1000E and an 80mm lens. With this combination I traveled again around the world and did street portraits of strangers (www.street-portraits.eu). Then, I got bored again and went on to shoot street portraits using my large format camera (4×5 Linhof Technika). And guess what, after this worked out pretty well, I got bored again.
At some point I found the wet collodion process and thought that it was something I wanted to do. This kept me busy the first month, because I only created black plates (I never joined a workshop, which is pretty stupid from today’s point of view). Fast forward to today, I now give lots of private and public workshops, with some clients flying in from other countries. My wet plate portraits won awards and got published in magazines. I even got a title page on an international magazine.
Sometimes, under time pressure, I still find it challenging and I get a bit nervous. But this is exactly the feeling I enjoy the most. I work best if I’m a little bit nervous. A little stress is a good thing, because it gives you a energy boost and I focus much better under this condition.
What I like a lot about this process is that I make everything with my own hands. I create my own chemicals. I modify and repair my cameras (my old wooden friends need a lot of attention to stay healthy). I shoot my images with a lot of experience and gut feeling. For example I can guess the exposure because of the age of the chemicals. I do also push and pull development in this process depending on what look I want on the final image. All these are not measurable; these are just based on feeling for me. A good example for that is the varnishing process. I heat up the plate and hold it in my hand as hot as I can handle it. As soon as reaches a certain temperature in my hand, I start to varnish the plate.The temperature is different on larger and smaller plates. Can I tell you the exact figures? No, its just a feeling I have.
I put so much of myself in this unique portraits. Every movement — from pouring the plate, to putting it in the silver bath and in the plate holder, and pouring the developer on it by hand — creates a uniqueness I have never experienced in anything else. I also like that I create only one original plate and have to give it away. This is something you don’t experience as a traditional photographer. Even in the analog way, you typically keep the negatives.
How have you been keeping busy and creative with your photography during this time of lockdowns and quarantine?
I worked on several wet plate projects to express my feelings about the current situation. My first project was as animation made of seven 13×18 cm tintypes showing the ”virus” moving along with my hands and I followed it closely with my eyes. This hints on the equal precautions needed for both COVID-19 and the wet plate process (mask and gloves).
In another project, I modified the Waterhouse stop of my Dallmeyer 2B Petzval lens to a symbolic C. With that I created two wet plates that I like a lot. One is called Self Isolation. You can see me sitting alone under a tree in my garden. The tree has a lot of C-shaped bokeh in the background. And because of the small image circle I also created a “C” between the sky and the tree. This depicts me sitting alone at home because I’m surrounded by the virus.
Another image I created with the same setup shows a tree in the background with a C-shaped bokeh, like the virus is far away.
But if you look closer at the fence you see lot of little C-shaped bokeh elements again — the virus is everywhere.
The wet plate below is about downplaying and all other BS that some people write about the virus, a message to all the new “specialists” that have surfaced during the crisis.
I also made a call to #stayathome with a unique wet plate self-portrait. Without an assistant, I had to use my Insta360 to shoot this video. I also used my iPhone as a live view on the Polaroid Mini Portrait camera, so I could frame myself.
As a wet plate artist, where do you seek inspiration and ideas in this challenging time? How do you deal with the setbacks and limitations?
Daily life fills me with lots of inspiration, even with topics like COVID-19. Or a plate coming up about how people see refugees. For portraits, I inspire myself with the people I shoot portraits of. Everyone has a unique story to tell and everyone is talented in their special way. Strong feelings about something also inspire a lot of my work.
Be grateful for every failure. This gives you a chance to stand up again and get more experienced. An instructor told me once during my time when I was training pool-billiards, never be afraid to fail. This advice works also for wet plate photography. Prepare better for the next time and make it happen.
We heard that you’ve also been busy with United Art Gallery, your own creative initiative as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. How did you get started with it? What gave you the idea to make it a community or submission-based endeavor?
I couldn’t stop watching the One World: Together at Home concert. I was watching it until three o’clock in the morning. I was so amazed by so many artists I haven’t seen before. I just thought we need something like that for visual artists too — to show the world that we as artists are still creative during these times with the COVID-19. I liked the idea of a silent gallery — silent in a way that there are no likes, upvotes, discussion or view count. I like to compare it with one of my most favorite galleries in Vienna, the Westlicht photo gallery. You just walk in and see great artwork on white walls in a very quiet area. You can read the title and if you get closer, you get more information of the specific piece you are looking at.
I think our gallery comes very close to this approach. I don’t want comparison between the different artists. Just a non-biased view of great art from around the world in response to COVID-19.
How has the reception been so far? What themes, styles, or genres have emerged as predominant?
The reactions are amazing. People love our United Art Gallery a lot. I say “ours” because it would just would be a blank gallery without all these amazing artists. Not only the artists love it. After under a week of publishing it, I did a podcast interview, got phone call interview, and feedback from other curators, photographers, and artists. The feedback was always the same — they have never seen a gallery about this topic with such an amazing quality and variety of images.
Here comes the beauty of the silent gallery concept: they look at artwork from famous artists and artists they have never seen before and love them all. It’s a bit like seeing the One World concert with Lady Gaga and and a musician from Africa who you probably haven’t heard of before. I don’t think something like this existed before. Speaking of variety, I’m proud to say, that our gallery is touching on a lot of different media types and styles — not only photographs, but also paintings, tattoos, and street art.
Have you also been receiving film photography or wet plate works for United Art Gallery? Why do you think these traditional photographic processes remain relevant even at a time like this?
Because of my connection to the wet plate community where a lot of people know me, you will find a lot of great wet plate artists in the gallery. But there are also lots of amazing film photographers with great ideas. Like, images from the 1990s coming back to life with a Coronavirus twist. Or an artist from Switzerland using her typewriter to type on negatives and enlarge them with a great message. You will also find great documentary images about this topic shot on film. I feel very fortunate to talk with all these artists in person.
I think people get bored from digital (don’t get me wrong, I love shooting in digital). They love the haptics and slowing down that comes with analog photography. There are also so many different options to work with the analog medium, from different processes, different printing methods and different films. It’s not easy to get bored in analog photography.
Working with our hands is another thing that people are missing when they sit in front of their computers. It gives you more feeling of “real” work and a longer way to creating a great image also gives more satisfaction.
What has your own photography and the works you’ve received for United Art Gallery taught you about the role and importance of creative projects at this time?
I think we as artists have the responsibility express our mind about certain topics. Remaining silent and let others discriminate or trash talk about things that are happening in the world is not who we are. We show with our art how we feel. We process our fears with it, and we show our happiness with it. Art is our way of communicating with the world. And I think we can make changes through it.
Out of all the works you’ve received so far as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which one do you think represents your current thoughts, sentiments, or hopes best?
This is a tough one as there are many of them. I really don’t like to call one as the best at any specific topic because they are all great about the specific topic they were created for.
The photographs of Sarah Weal show people locked down behind their windows, but the reflections show a blurry picture of what they see and cannot touch.
The wetplate portrait of Eric Retterbush’s wife who is also a nurse working with COVID-19 patients gave me goosebumps and made me tear up.
The image by Ludwig Hagelstein of a Romanian worker who prepares vegetables for German households far away from home. Some kilometers away, a coworker died alone with his family due to COVID-19.
A painting of Nayana La Fond shows a nurse preparing for her fight. Nayana herself is an immuno-suppressed artist currently quarantined and working in a home studio.
I think you get the idea; there is no single best image to any topic. These are all amazing, heartbreaking and important in their own ways.
Some photographers may be feeling too distraught, uninspired, or demotivated to shoot or continue projects due to the limitations of the pandemic. What advice would you give to help them feel creative and get shooting?
Don’t overthink too much, just start and work your mind around every new image you want to create for a topic or project. There are photographers who took images of rotten flowers at home to express their feelings about being isolated. You have everything you need beside you; you just need to give it a chance to be discovered. You can do that even with your smartphone camera! We have a self-portrait in the gallery that was shot on an iPhone and enlarged into a salt print. Everything is possible — you will soon see indoor vacation family portraits shot with a smartphone.
If you’re still shooting or plan to do a photography project as a personal response to COVID-19, you might want take Markus’ invitation to join United Art Gallery. “I’m excited with every new image that comes in. I appreciate them all. Be a part of something big and beautiful. Let’s show the world that we are alive and nothing can stop our creativity!”
Joy is a writer, film photographer, and part-time traveler from Manila, Philippines. She finds bliss in exploring whatever surrounds her and documenting it in photos and stories. She runs on caffeine, lives on books, savors good music, and thrives in everything creative.