Their Photographs they are the result of an unprecedented experience. In his studio, the photographer Antonio Escalante he is lavish in being kind to his model, maintains a pleasant conversation and, having achieved complicity, places the future photographed in front of the camera and turns off the light. Although his portrait was already warned, he always ends up unarmed when facing the dark.
The result comes later. Escalante removes the glass plate and invites the visitor to his laboratory, where magic lives and a forgotten chemistry is practiced. Soon we will be able to see the negative and understand why in the early days of the Photography there were cultures that feared that their souls would be trapped in the gelatin bromide.
“People are very surprised in the first photo, when they first face the darkness. Is not easy. You have not thought about it. And the result is surprising “, says the photographer.
Reasons for a surprise
Let’s start at the beginning: the work of Antonio Escalante recovers a forgotten photographic technique, used since the mid-nineteenth century and abandoned in the thirties of the following century. For this, it has had to update chemical formulas and reinvent the technology considered obsolete to obtain remarkable results.
For the photographer, it is a long research process, which began from his frustration with the results obtained with conventional equipment when performing documentary photography with native communities, since he felt that his work did not impact his portraits. “My intention is to portray all the native peoples of the country. It is a huge and difficult job “, it states. He thought then that such effort should be registered with the best technique. That motivated him to seek a new language for photographing portraits: paradoxically, a 150-year novelty.
The first technique he investigated was known as wet collodion, after the daguerreotype. In it, the photographer prepares the glass plate in advance, photographs with the plate still fresh, and develops before it dries. He tried to find the exact formula, although studying the notebooks of ancient photographers is the closest thing to rummaging through great-grandmother’s recipes: illegible handwriting, fanciful units of measurement, variations linked to climate or humidity. And to make it even more difficult, collodion, a varnish that dries quickly and leaves a transparent sheet similar to cellophane, is extremely explosive.
For his second attempt he devoted himself to researching the dry plate technique, the last one developed on glass. The one used in Peru by Martín Chambi, Pedro Emilio Garreaud or the Vargas brothers from Arequipa in their studies. For Escalante, who took a year and a half to master the formula, it is the most perfect, precise and detailed technique for taking portraits.
As he deepened in the technique, from his chemistry to the very performance of the photo session, the photographer feels he somewhat resembles those fairground magicians, whose fascination always hid a previous trick. His findings of chemical formulas (the secret of which the ancient masters jealously guarded) have to do with this mystery.
Once the photosensitive film had been developed, for the photo session Escalante used a bellows camera for glass plates, a wooden contraption from the 1930s with an American lens with a somewhat more modern mechanical shutter, acquired from a collector who was surprised to learn that his plan was to make it work. It is not very precise and has some limitations, but for the photographer it is a precious toy, whose inaccuracies enrich the same process.
Due to the weak sensitivity to light of the glass plates, the photos are taken inside the studio. To illuminate, it is more practical to use modern flashes that, for a very brief moment, break the total darkness to which the photograph must be subjected. “I realized that by keeping the studio in the dark before taking the photo, something was happening with the gaze of the person being portrayed. It has to do with the fact of facing him with the dark and with himself. The person portrayed is alone ”, he explains.
At that moment, something strange happens. Not only does the quality of the support (the glass plate) allow the face of the portrayed to be seen with extraordinary definition, but the same dynamic of the photographic session makes the photographed assume a gesture that links us with those who took a portrait more ago. a century and a half ago. That stillness gives a strange solemnity to the photo, that intimidating and deep look, the product of someone who feels confused in the dark. “Although the process is anachronistic, long and tedious, it seems to me that the result is very current”, says the artist.
Jorge Villacorta, curator and researcher in the history of photography, was invited by the photographer to one of these unprecedented sessions. For him, it has been a sudden and profound experience. For the specialist, although the photographic technique used by Escalante is nineteenth-century, his results are especially contemporary. “The 19th century is marked by making flattering portraits of the client. He was getting ready, putting on his best clothes. Going to the studio was like going to the movies. The photographer made you trust him, he had probably taken the photograph of your parents, of marriage, of your wife with their first child. He was like the family doctor. Normally the photographic session was a session with light, where the client projected the best of himself, surely he would come out beautified “.
For the researcher, the aspect of taking portraits that surprised his model, as Escalante does today, was started by a famous Victorian photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron. “She forced the existing technique then to obtain unexpected results. When you see his portraits of friends and associates, you realize that he takes them to an extreme. It does not embellish them, but rather gives them drama, historical depth. She was a woman from the British Empire, who was interested in legends, mythology, the chiaroscuro of baroque painting. And in his portraits, he revealed to his characters a dimension that they did not know about themselves. In a way, this is what Escalante does “, he points out.
Indeed, according to the researcher, the Lima photographer creates a situation in which he does not know what the dimension, the depth, the sensitive space will be in which he will immerse his model. “What he does know is that things will come out of this experience that he had never seen before. And neither we, as portrayed, had seen ourselves. In that sense, due to the situation created, we are talking about a contemporary photographer “, says.
“There are many photographers today who are investigating old technical processes. But they don’t turn off the light like Escalante does. His work is a very particular thermometer of our time, when we all have an altered sensitivity due to the pandemic. At the moment when we are not being as we know ourselves, he has found a process of portraiture that disarms us “adds the researcher.
- Place: Bellavista Workshop. Bellavista Street 590, Miraflores.
- Website: antonioescalante.com.