In the narrow confines of Steve Lovegrove’s photography darkroom, sight strains in the darkness and all other senses heighten in response.
This intensifies the stinging sensation in the eyes and the taste on the tongue of the various chemical developers and solutions open on the table to be used in a historical photographic process known as wet plate collodion.
Bathed in a dim red glow, Lovegrove describes the process first used in 1851 by Frederick Scott Archer.
“I’m pouring collodion onto this sheet of anodised aluminium, which forms the emulsion, much like a film emulsion. Embedded in that collodion are iodides and bromides. After that it goes into a bath of silver nitrate where the collodion attracts the silver out of the solution so we now have a material that is sensitive to light,” Lovegrove explains.
One constraint of this wet plate process is time. The whole process from the plate being coated, to it being developed is a span of about 15 minutes.
Having a high-quality digital camera readily on hand in our smartphones makes a quarter of an hour seem like an eon but in the world of analogue photography, it’s actually quite brief.
“This isn’t just taking a photo with your phone, it’s on Instagram and it’s gone in 30 seconds in this instant-gratification world,” Lovegrove says.
These wet plates can be inserted into the back of a camera to create a ‘photo’ in the sense of what we think of when that word is said, however Lovegrove prefers to create his imagery without a camera, placing found objects on the plates.
‘Every image is different’
In this instance, a skeleton of a small bird and exposing it to light in the darkroom.
The wet plate with the bird skeleton placed on top of it is exposed to six minutes of light in the darkroom.
When the time is up, Lovegrove carefully picks it up and washes it in water.
Under the red light, an impression of the skeleton appears on the plate.
The lights are turned on and the plate is put into a bath of developer, transforming the milky blue-coloured impression into solid black.
Lovegrove runs his finger around the edge of the plate, carefully inspecting the corners.
“Wet plate collodion is known for its artifacts, for its damage around the edges, things that can wrong,” he says.
“The chemical process I’m working with is not perfect. It’s not possible to make a perfect wet plate collodion, every image is different.”
This strive for the ‘perfect imperfect’ defines Lovegrove’s workflow and philosophies in regard to photography.
Early interest in news photography
Lovegrove sees this methodology as a perfect union of two of his passions.
“My personal photography has often related to found objects, grunge things that people would walk past and not notice … The wet plate process and those sort of subject matter has welded together to create the perfect medium to express what I see in these various objects I bring back to the studio,” he says.
The genesis of Lovegrove’s 40-year association with photography can be easily traced.
“Growing up in South Australia both of my parents worked for local newspapers, so I had an interest in news and news photography and when I started doing photography in high school I was most interested in that type of photography.”
After high school, Lovegrove attended a technical college to further pursue his interest. His tertiary education is in stark contrast to how photography is taught in today’s digital age.
“I got a really good technical grounding in chemistry, physics and various types of cameras,” he said.
Lovegrove’s professional career started not long after in Alice Springs.
As a vocation, he worked for newspapers in the Northern Territory, also for the Territorian government, taking photos for all their different departments.
Photography would take him to Asia for several years and then he was listening one day to the radio and heard talkback radio’s John Laws spruiking Tasmania and decided to give Tassie a try.
‘Time alone to make art’
As a commercial photographer, Lovegrove had to embrace digital photography when it arrived but soon realised it was not for him.
“Around 20I3, I began to get tired of sitting in front of the computer and the predominance in the digital world of the time required doing post-production. So I started to look at how I would go back to some area of photography that was more hands-on and more interesting for me.”
Lovegrove has always been drawn to the darkroom and the tactile elements of loading, developing and processing images.
“Working slowly with processes, just enjoying that time alone to make art is very inspiring,” he says.
His workshop and darkroom are in the Kickstart Arts precinct in New Town, Hobart.
“My whole goal is to create a community darkroom, a place where people can come learn these techniques, where I could teach these techniques and people had access to a darkroom even if they didn’t want to attend a course,” he says.
Providing a space for people to learn about non-digital photography processes and keeping those processes alive is extremely important to Lovegrove.
“Photography has been wonderful to me and I think it is something that a lot of people can enjoy,” he says.