Inside the Artist’s Studio with Jenn Libby

Jenn’s artwork is on view in “Alternative Photographic Process”. Her work is available for purchase in our Online Shop:
store.mainstreetartsgallery.com


I’m an artist who has worked primarily with the wet-plate collodion photo process since 2005.  Invented in 1851, wet-plate collodion was used to make ambrotypes, tintypes, glass negatives, and lantern slides.  It was the predominant photo process for several decades and was used to document the American Civil War.  This challenging process requires a darkroom on hand because the photographic plate stays wet during the exposure and must be developed immediately.

Self-portrait in Hungerford Studio, 2016, ruby ambrotype

Self-portrait in Hungerford Studio, 2016, ruby ambrotype

I learned (and later taught) the wet-plate process at the Visual Studies Workshop when I was working on my MFA in visual studies.  I’m from the U.P. [Upper Peninsula of Michigan] originally but I’ve lived most of my life in Rochester, NY, a city rich with photographic history and resources.  My interest in creating photographic objects is what led to my interest in learning the versatile collodion process.

The Cluttered House, Collodion positive transparency, 2005

The Cluttered House, 2005, collodion positive transparencies in jars

My thesis exhibition, The Cluttered House, included collodion images on glass in jars of water.  I didn’t know how long they would survive but I still have a number of the jars with the images still intact 12 years later.  My more recent work, Record, is made up of many tintype photograms mounted and displayed in vintage film developing hangers. While less sculptural than my jars, there is still a more tactile quality than photographs on paper.

Installation view of Record, 2011, Tintypes in film developing hangers

Installation view of Record, 2011, Tintypes in film developing hangers

I started making photograms in the darkroom with the wet-plate process during the winter months because of lack of natural light for in-camera work, before I had started shooting with artificial lights.  I could use the light from my enlarger to create these camera-less images.  When I saw the results I was hooked. Unlike a cyanotype or gelatin silver photogram, the trace or shadow of the object appears black instead of white.  Shadowy figures and objects emerge from the ether, and developing imperfections create a background with texture and depth.

Cowboy, 2011, Tintype

Cowboy, 2011, tintype

Like many artists, I’m a collector.  My work explores memory and the impulse to (re)collect.  Almost all of my artwork (I also make artists’ books and small gauge films) starts with objects and images in my collection.  The Cluttered House installation grew out of three objects I took from an abandoned house many years ago—a cigar box, an old children’s book, and a young woman’s diary.  For Record, I started recording bones, toys, glass items and other natural and man-made objects—small fragments of the 20th century.

Kodak, 2011, tintype

Kodak, 2011, tintype

The photogram of a translucent blue vinyl 45rpm record (with the aptly named track, Holiday on Mars) was the image in Record that led to my next series, Seeing is Forgetting.  I began making square photogram tintypes using primarily round objects, many of which were glass.  The images in Record are generally identifiable objects.  With Seeing is Forgetting I am transitioning into the abstract and hoping the viewer will look at the image and not at the object that I recorded.

Record (Holiday on Mars), 2011, tintype

Record (Holiday on Mars), 2011, tintype

I liked these tiny celestial and cellular looking images and an old map cabinet was the perfect place to encase them.  It speaks of collections, particularly those used for study, education, and display. I am very much influenced by cabinets of curiosity, the precursors to our modern day museums and archives.  What drives people to collect?  What drives them to record their lives?

Seeing is Forgetting, 2014, tintypes in map cabinet

Seeing is Forgetting, 2014, tintypes in map cabinet

I was curious to see how these images would look enlarged.  I printed out a 16”x16” test print and liked it, but decided it needed to be bigger.  I ended up having six of the images printed as 30” x 30” ink jet prints and incorporating them into the series with the map cabinet.  I love the intimacy of the small objects, but I also find the large prints to be exciting in a different way.  By changing the scale I remove the image further from the object that made it.  Oddly, with these large prints, I found myself moving away from remembering and into being present.

#3, 2014, inkjet print

#3, 2014, inkjet print

Here are a few images to illustrate my wet-plate shooting process.

In this first image I am pouring collodion onto a thoroughly cleaned and polished piece of black glass.

Pouring the plate

Next, I take the plate into the darkroom and put it in a bath of silver nitrate.  It will stay here for 3-4 minutes as the plate becomes sensitized.

Sensitizing the plate

Sensitizing the plate

I take the sensitized plate, now in a light-tight plate holder, to my 8×10 camera to make the photograph.

Inserting plate holder

Inserting plate holder

After making my exposure I take the plate back into the darkroom to develop it.

Developing the plate

Developing the plate

After developing and rinsing I can take the plate into the light to fix it.  After fixing, the plate will be thoroughly rinsed, dried, and varnished.

Fixing the plate

Fixing the plate

As for my physical studio space, I’ve been in transition since last summer.  After spending a few years working out of the Hungerford building, I decided to convert my garage into a new studio.  It’s a beautiful space with a large darkroom, lots of natural light, and access to the outdoors.  I forgot to mention that the collodion process is sensitive to ultraviolet light and it is a slow process akin to a film speed of ISO 1, which means it requires a lot of UV light.  Shooting outdoors is often the ideal option.  I’m really looking forward to spring and starting new work in my new space!


Stop by Main Street Arts to see Jenn’s artwork in “Alternative Photographic Process” (runs February 25–March 31, 2017). Visit her website at www.jennlibby.com for more information on Jenn’s wet-plate portrait studio and workshops. Follow Jenn on Instagram @geneseelibby and like her Facebook page at Genesee Libby Studio.

Take a look at our previous Inside the Artist’s Studio blog post by photographer Ian Sherlock.

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