From the River: Michael Kolster’s Handmade Photographs

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Dressed in a silver nitrate-splattered white shirt and ripped jeans with a red headlamp strapped just below his eyeglasses and blue surgical gloves on his hands, Michael Kolster has the look of a eccentric professor with his laboratory set on the banks of the Los Angeles River, creating prints using anachronistic methods.

Kolster and his portable dark room | Photo: Carren Jao

Kolster and his portable dark room | Photo: Carren Jao

Kolster, a 2013 Guggenheim fellow and associate professor of art at Bowdoin College in Maine, has set up shop for fourteen days along different parts of the Los Angeles River, advised by Jenny Price of Play the L.A. River and guided by the group’s playing cards. “It was a great way to find access to locations along the river and it even tells you where to park,” says Kolster. The professor’s journey is a continuation of his long term project, “Down by the River,” where he captured four other American rivers in the East, forty years after the introduction of the 1972 Clean Water Act.

Kolster was intrigued by the Los Angeles River’s similar qualities to the river that began his project: the Androscoggin in Maine. “Both rivers, it seems, share a similar problem with how past perceptions of them cloud present attitudes,” writes Kolster after that day. “Forty years ago the Androscoggin was one of the most polluted rivers in the country, a smelly miasma in which no life survived and made people living nearby sick. Maine Senator Edmund Muskie, who grew up along the river, authored The Clean Water Act in 1972, and as a result of that legislation and many other factors, these places have begun a slow, partial recovery, making the Androscoggin, arguably, the birthplace of the CWA. The L.A. River seems to be undergoing a similar recovery, and what I sense is an upswell of interest in many of the city’s inhabitants to learn more about it, to spend time near it, and to begin to reclaim it as an resource. If so then it shares enough with the Eastern rivers I have already photographed to justify a comparison and to explore the complexities they share in common.”

When we met by the Los Angeles River, Kolster has already captured the Androscoggin River in Maine, the James River in Virginia, the Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania, and the Savannah along the South Carolina/Georgia border.

Headwaters, Canoga Park, 2014

Headwaters, Canoga Park, 2014

Aliso Creek Confluence, Reseda (diptych), 2014

Aliso Creek Confluence, Reseda (diptych), 2014

Kolster’s project first began with dissatisfaction. An accomplished photographer, Kolster tried all means he could think of to capture the spirit of the river that runs just behind his studio, the Androscoggin. He experimented with multiple digital exposures on one image; large-format black and white film; and even video, to no avail. He then took a page from history and picked up a bygone technique called wet plate collodion process, which produced ambrotypes, a faint negative that reverses into a positive image when placed in front of a black background. Invented in 1851, Kolster’s chosen technique thrived only until 1880.

In true pioneering fashion, Kolster built his own portable dark room. “I had access to a table saw,” he says with a smile. He also learned to use a sewing machine to create that shroud of blackout material he wraps himself in when developing his photographs. He mixed his own solutions for the development process. The photographer says “Learning new skills is part of the fun.”

To create a photograph, Kolster first had to clean and polish his own glass plates. For this trip, the photographer prepared 200, each one a future photograph. He then pours a maple syrup-like collodion solution, onto his 8-inch by 10-inch plates. After which the fast action begins. He makes the plate light sensitive by immersing it into a silver bath, runs to expose the plate in his Phillips 8×10 Compact Series II camera, then returns to his dark box to pour developer he pre-mixed days before over the still-wet plate. Finally, another clearing bath fixes the image permanently onto the glass. All this occurs in sequence within fifteen minutes and it results in a rare artifact indeed, a handmade photograph.

A handmade photograph in development | Photo: Carren Jao

A handmade photograph in development | Photo: Carren Jao

As the adjective “handmade” implies, there is a certain amount of imperfection and unpredictability in the process, but that only adds to the medium’s allure. “I have no idea how photographs are going to come out,” Kolster says, relishing the capricious nature of his medium.

Apart from his medium’s unpredictability, Kolster also notes that his ambrotypes translate well digitally. Each 8-inch by 10-inch plate can be scanned and enlarged to as much as 40-inch by 50-inch. “There’s no grain. Everything is silver on the molecular level,” says Kolster, “The resolution is ridiculous.”

Kolster’s wet plate doesn’t seem like much at first, just a strange black and white image on glass, but backed on a dark surface, details suddenly emerge. Small specks the spidery wires of electric lines crisscrossing above the river. Crowded particles suddenly come into focus to form the foliage on trees.

Sepulveda Dam and Basin, Encino, 2014

Sepulveda Dam and Basin, Encino, 2014

Each photograph’s tonal quality is impressive, almost forming a sense of looking into a 3D photograph or stepping back in time. Because the process also employs a relatively slow exposure time (as opposed to the milliseconds of today’s cameras), each photograph is also devoid of fast-moving objects. It is as if the riverside were at peace, relatively free from the frenetic activity of humans and animals. Here, on his last day by the Los Angeles River, he captures a forgotten beauty on glass.

Though the professor scouted his locations a year earlier with a digital camera, photographing each venue, from the river’s headwaters in Canoga Park down to its mouth in Long Beach has been eye-opening. “What’s challenging to me is that this river is urban from end to end,” says Kolster.

Kolster has yet to figure out what will become of his photographs. It could be an exhibition, a book, or a series in a publication, but for now, he’s simply gathering moments in time on the Los Angeles River. He plans to return, perhaps to see the subtle changes in the river as time goes by.

Photographs by Michael Kolster, all rights reserved. All images scanned ambrotypes, each glass plate 7 3/8″ by 9 3/16″

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