Sunday, July 27, 2014

Portfolio Showcase 2014: S. Gayle Stevens & Judy Sherrod

Nocturnes is a hauntingly beautiful landscape series of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The work is a collaboration between wet plate photographer S. Gayle Stevens and pinhole camera maker Judy Sherrod. The project began as an experiment in large format wet plates from a pinhole camera. Both Stevens and Sherrod work with pinhole cameras, but for this project they each played to their strengths; Sherrod as a camera builder, and Stevens as a collodion photographer. After their initial trial of an 11x14 tintype proved successful, the duo wanted to go even larger, finally settling on 20x20 inch plates. At the time of this experiment there were few women working with mammoth plates. To our knowledge, working with mammoth wet plate pinholes is a process unique to Sherrod and Stevens. 

For the last two years the two have worked together on Nocturnes and to date have accumulated close to fifty plates in the portfolio. It’s interesting to notice the differences in in each plate caused by whichever pinhole camera they used at the time. “I’m a box maker. My portfolio is one of boxes rather than one of images. The corresponding images reflect their ‘parent’ boxes rather than specific themes,” says Sherrod. Apart from their use of large format pinhole cameras, the process of making each wet plate is the same. Stevens describes the process: 

I pour a 20" wet plate tintype and sensitize it in a large silver bath. After 3 minutes, I place the now sensitized plate in the 20 x 20 x 10 inch camera that Judy built, we place it in this immense SUV with B (Judy's brown eyed bird dog and constant companion) as our guide and take off down I 90 for a place to park. I carry the camera to the beach and we decide what we want to say that day. We watch the tides, preferring low tide when we can capture the script left by the waves. The camera is placed on the sand, no tripod.

After the exposure is made, the plate is whisked back to the dark room to be processed and varnished. 

Residing on opposite ends of the country, Stevens in Illinois and Sherrod in Texas, the team selected Pass Christian, Mississippi as their meeting place. In addition to its desirable location on the gulf, other motivating factors included Stevens’ dark room below a friend’s house and several connections to patrons of the arts. “Such a large undertaking is expensive and we had about 30 patrons who supported the work. Without them this would have been only a dream,” says Stevens. Since its launch, Nocturnes has had a tremendous amount of success in finding an audience. Although they appreciate their commercial success, their main concern has always been the production of unique and interesting work through innovation. Sherrod explains, “We were just being ordinary and in being that way, created something that is extraordinary. We discovered a way to convey an interpretation that’s not been done before. We weren’t trying to do that. It’s just what happened.”

That attitude fits in well with both of their personal definitions of success and exemplifies why their partnership has worked so well. For Sherrod, success is all about her camera, “If I can make a box without injury, that's the first step toward success. If the little boxes don't fall apart, that's the second step. If they actually make images, real, honest-to-goodness authentic images, how could I ask for more from them? That's what makes me happy.” And for Stevens, it’s all about her calling, “I make art because it is too painful not to make art."

Portfolio Showcase 2014 is on view at The Kiernan Gallery through July 30, 2014.

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