by Matthew Klingle with photographs by Michael Kolster
From Boom Summer 2015, Vol 5, No 2
Carleton Watkins was arguably California’s first great artist, but like many Californians, he came to the state as an emigrant looking for work. Born in upstate New York in 1829, Watkins arrived in San Francisco in 1850, just as the Gold Rush was underway and California became a state. Employed by childhood friend and future railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington, he delivered supplies to mines in the Sierra Nevada, followed by stints as a carpenter and bookseller, before turning to his life’s passion: photography.1
Watkins often used the wet-plate process to make his pictures. It was a laborious, expensive technique that with time, patience, and luck could yield exquisitely detailed images on glass plates. His famed mammoth-plate photographs, made with a custom-built camera that accommodated plates as large as 18 by 22 inches, were materially and financially exhausting. Making them required thousands of pounds of cameras, lenses, glass plates, plate holders, tripods, a dark tent for developing, and a mobile laboratory of volatile chemicals. Watkins often traveled by railcar, but just as often by steamer or mule train, as he did to photograph Yosemite Valley beginning in the late 1850s. It was worth the effort. His iconic panoramas of Yosemite and San Francisco would ensure his lasting fame. As historian Martha Sandweiss argues, the glass-plate pictures made by Watkins and his peers made California and the West “a familiar place to millions of Americans.”2
As much as citrus crate labels and early Hollywood films, Watkins’s wondrously gorgeous images helped to sell an idealized California to the world. But Watkins was an artist for hire who photographed the ordinary as well as the picturesque. During visits to Southern California in 1877 and 1880, traveling on a free rail pass, courtesy of Huntington, he made pictures of wineries, ranches, and the dusty wide streets of a young Los Angeles. In the first mammoth-plate view of the city, taken from atop Fort Moore Hill in 1877, Watkins pointed his camera northeast over the adobe and clapboard houses of Sonoratown, the Mexican neighborhood that grew up along the banks of the Los Angeles River.
Today, Angelenos are rediscovering their city’s eponymous waterway even if they can’t always find it “under ten gridlocked freeways,” as river advocate Jenny Price once put it.3 Numerous organizations, from Friends of the LA River to the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation, are helping Angelenos get to know their river again. For so many in Los Angeles—let alone the rest of the world—the river isn’t a river but a sad trickle of water, its concrete channel made famous in countless movie chase scenes. But in the past few years, a stretch of the river has been transformed. Small parks have sprung up, a bike path runs along the top of the channel, there’s kayaking in the summer, and birding year round. The city has a billion dollar plan to expand and extend this “re-rivering” of the channel, and many of those who have visited understand the real riparian promise of what for so long has been derided as fake. Yet images of the river’s concrete have been cemented in the minds of so many others. To change it, new images are needed.
So why not turn back to the original technology that was so successful in first creating iconic photographs of California and the West? For the past five years, Michael Kolster, a friend and colleague at Bowdoin College in Maine, made wet-plate photographs of industrialized rivers up and down the East Coast. His favored type of image is the ambrotype: a faint negative made on glass using salted collodion, a sticky solution of gun cotton in ether that creates a semitransparent skin on glass. (Collodion was originally used as a medical field dressing, notably during the Civil War.) For Kolster, the making of ambrotypes physically echoes the industrial processes that produced early photographic technology and the polluted rivers he shoots.
Wet-plate photography is full contact art. It is physically taxing and mentally absorbing. The process begins in his studio, weeks in advance of a trip, when Kolster prepares his silver nitrate bath, polishes stacks of glass, and thins the collodion with highly flammable ether and 190-proof Everclear grain alcohol. After the collodion ripens, he waits for a sunny day with no wind and moderate temperatures. The makeshift dark box he built out of thick canvas and wood is tipsy in stiff breezes—and if it’s too cold, the chemistry won’t work. When conditions are right, he loads the 8×10 view camera, lenses, tripod, glass plates, plate holders, collapsible darkroom, chemicals, and gallons of water into the back of his Volvo station wagon. An In-N-Out Burger sticker on the rear door hints at California; he taught photography in San Francisco for almost a decade before moving to Maine in 2000.
Once Kolster reaches his site, he scouts for a flat, shady place to set up camp. For each plate, he follows a strict regimen. After framing a scene with his view camera, he pours the syrupy collodion onto a plate by hand, coating it with a thin, uniform layer of goo before placing the plate into a silver nitrate bath for several minutes. He then removes the plate, puts it into a lightproof holder, sprints to the camera and inserts the plate, opens the shutter, and measures the exposure by counting under his breath for between ten seconds to a minute, depending on the light and age of his collodion. Because the process only records ultraviolet light, traditional light meters are useless. Once he has the shot, he runs back to the dark box, turns on his red-light headlamp, pours developer over the plate, and waits a few seconds for the image to appear. When it does, he washes off the developer, clears the rinsed plate, moves back to the camera to frame another shot, and repeats the process. For the next eight to ten hours, he’ll be in constant motion. On a good day, he can make up to twelve plates. Afterward, at his studio or in a hotel room if he’s on the road, Kolster washes and dries the plates before coating them with varnish to protect the image.
The result is more like sculpture than a traditional photograph. On the collodion-coated side, if Kolster timed his exposures and developing correctly, and the light was sufficient, the silver-tinted areas float on the collodion film. When put against a black surface, like velvet, the image reverses and becomes a positive as the areas with less silver appear as shadows and the rest as diaphanous light. Places where the collodion peels or coagulates add texture or contrast to each individual plate. In addition to exhibiting the plates, he makes highly detailed large-scale prints from digital scans of the glass images.
Kolster honed his technique in the East before heading west in the path of Watkins. Like his nineteenth-century predecessor, he hauled his entire photography factory with him, but fitting for a modern day survey, he traveled by freeway in a rental minivan packed floor to ceiling with his gear. Once he arrived, photographing the Los Angeles River presented other challenges, beginning with reliable access. Finding good vantage points proved difficult but not impossible. The results speak to the resonances between Kolster’s work and his forerunners.
At the Glendale Narrows, leafy branches of overhanging trees drape a light dappled pool dotted with exposed rocks. Absent the caption, it would be hard to see this lush riverside idyll as the much ridiculed version of the Los Angeles River. But other images turn typecast into observation. A triptych of the South Gate Railroad Bridge, with each shot taken at a slightly different angle, bends the trusses into an arc bulging over the concrete channel and into the foreground. Further upstream, where the channelized Arroyo Calabasas and Bell Creek join to form the river’s headwaters in Canoga Park, the concrete divider thrusts at the viewer like a spear tip, pushing the eye aside to avoid the strike. Neither place is typically scenic, yet both photographs are beautiful.
Another striking image is a triptych created at an overlook in Elysian Park in central Los Angeles, facing northeast, above the confluence of Interstate 5 and State Highway 110, the Arroyo Seco Parkway. Beneath the streams of concrete and asphalt is the waterway, elbowing past the location where, in 1789, Gaspar de Portolà gave the river its European name.
Like Watkins and other nineteenth-century photographers who captured the beauty of a once-distant California, Kolster has been on his own expeditions. But instead of going to the great out there, he has traveled to the great nearby, photographing places we take for granted or ignore. His photos point toward a new aesthetics of place, with roots in earlier photographic traditions, like the New Topographics movement of the mid-1970s, or even further back to Watkins himself. Kolster’s striking pictures are part of a longer tradition of blurring boundaries between pure and prosaic in American landscape photography.
Watkins might have appreciated what Kolster is doing with his rebooted version of wet-plate photography. For his entire life, Watkins was a hard working artist who, according to Jennifer A. Watts, curator of photographs at The Huntington Library, spent his “lifetime balancing client demands with his own aesthetic perfectionism.” When a paying customer asked him to photograph an irrigation canal or a bunch of grapes, he turned the everyday into the remarkable, insisting that viewers “stop and linger awhile to marvel at their simple beauty.”4
Kolster does the same in his photographs. He invites us to revisit the Los Angeles River as a place of splendor regardless of its checkered past and uncertain future. His ambrotypes are windows on the river of time, opening views full of possibility and even hope.
1. For Watkins as California’s “first great artist,” see Christopher Knight, “Carleton Watkins on the Frontier of U.S. Photography,” Los Angeles Times, 27 October 2008, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-et-watkins17-2008oct17-story.html [accessed 28 March 2015].
2. Martha A. Sandweiss, Print the Legend: Photography and the American West (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 153. For Watkins’s work in California, see Judy Graeme, “Photography of Carleton Watkins,” LA Observed, 24 November 2006, http://www.laobserved.com/intell/2008/11/photography_of_carleton_watkin_1.php [accessed 24 March 2015] and Weston Naef and Christine Hult-Lewis, eds. Carleton Watkins: The Complete Mammoth Photographs (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011).
3. Jenny Price, “Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in L.A.,” Land of Sunshine: An Environmental History of Los Angeles, William Deverell and Greg Hise, eds. (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005), 228–29, republished in The Believer 4: no.3 (April 2006), http://www.believermag.com/issues/200604/?read=article_price [accessed 20 March 2015].
4. Jennifer A. Watts, “Railroads and Agriculture,” Carleton Watkins, 397.