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That Old Black Magic

A young contemporary photographer conjures images from the past...

Text: Mike von Joel | Images: Water Hugo / Shizaru Gallery

Walter Hugo is on a roll. His exhibition, A Moment in an Instant World at the Shizaru Gallery,(1) opened to great acclaim and a snappy Private View busy with bright young things from the creative world of London arts. The following week he was off by invitation to New York amidst great excitement at the possibilities opening up for his work. He is destined to be a big success in the Big Apple because photographers working with original processes have already established collector and museum interest in the revived genre.

The young, London-based photographer is quick to point out his education was in the sciences as opposed to art school. He is almost apologetic about it – yet his qualifications in physics and maths from UCL are actually an integral part of his current work programme. For his images are heavily reliant on skills with chemical formulas and the science of lenses and the principles of the camera obscura.

Like many contemporary photographers, Hugo is disenchanted with the point and click marvels of digital imaging whereby it is possible to recreate, in-camera, a plethora of effects (even matching the appearance of Kodachrome or Tri-X period film stocks) that require little or no skill. And the fidelity of the object in contemporary photography is being seriously questioned by the sheer volume and instant replication of images created today.

In America, Mark Osterman and Frances Scully Osterman have pioneered the renewed interest in original photographic techniques, which are themselves more akin to painting than modern options. Osterman is Photographic Process Historian at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester, NY. He actively teaches the technical evolution of photography from Niépce heliographs to gelatin emulsions for a new generation of enthusiasts. Some notable American artists have adopted the philosophy and image qualities of what might be called ‘original photography’. In the mid 1990’s, Sally Mann began photographing landscapes on wet plate Collodion 8x10 glass negatives with the same 100-year-old 8 x 10 bellows view camera that she had used previously.(2) New York-based, Jill Enfield is best known for her work with the Cyanotype and Collodion; and more recently the wet plate Collodion process, originally used by Matthew Brady during the Civil War.

Walter Hugo recollects being given an Olympus compact camera at eight years old and was interested to rediscover the photographs he took with it – of unusual objects rather than friends and family. Despite attending UCL as a science student (‘I could have got a job as a geophysicist!’) in his spare time Hugo briefly assisted the photographer Rankin, having a crash course in the technicalities of film and Polaroid. He also attended a course at the Royal Holloway studying documentary filmmaking, something that still engages him today. Recently he has completed a number of short films relating to his working process(3) and Hugo confesses to being much impressed with Hans Namuth’s 1950 film of Jackson Pollock at work in his studio, especially the throwing of paint onto the surface. Linking this to the habit of anti-art protesters’ throwing of paint onto pictures that offend them, he manufactured his own version of blue (à la Yves Klein) which he splattered on to his digitally reproduced photographs – thus creating de facto unique prints. Walter Hugo does not eschew digital technology altogether, having adapted a set of old 19th century brass lenses to fit a DSLR in order to capture authentic effects without the benefit of Photoshop manipulation. 

The freedom of street art also attracted Hugo’s attention, especially the outsized photographic images by the acclaimed French interventionist known as JR, although Hugo’s immediate response was how to make the print appear on the actual surface as opposed to pasting it on as a stencil. With typical application, Hugo started to investigate the logistics of this, getting support from Silverprint (London’s leading supplier of traditional materials) who provided invaluable guidance, especially on emulsions(4). ‘My workshop turned into a laboratory, experimenting with emulsions until I found one that worked.’ 

Hugo confesses that he is ‘obsessed’ with portraits – capturing a moment of someone’s existence – and themes of identity. His new projects are all concerned with finding new ways of capturing a likeness, using film, camera and processing techniques. His philosophy he states as being ‘content, idea, and execution’ as opposed to much contemporary imagery which is based solely on content. ‘I should publish a manifesto,’ he laughs, ‘but which door to nail it to...?’ An extension of his experimental approach to creating the image is ably illustrated by his apparatus, which Hugo built by hand. He looked into acquiring existing equipment but nothing matched his vision for life-size 1:1 portraits until he settled on the Ambrotype, possibly named after James Ambrose Cutting who took out several patents relating to the process in 1854. In the UK it was called Collodion positive: one side of a very clean glass plate is covered with a thin layer of Collodion, then dipped in a silver nitrate solution and exposed to the subject while still wet. The plate is then developed and fixed. The resulting negative, when viewed by reflected light against a black background, appears as a positive image. Each exposure is unique. A room became the inside of a camera, the lenses reconfigured from old brass discoveries. ‘I made a head rest out of an old guitar stand,’ Hugo laughs, ‘the exposure time is anything from 8 to 12 seconds, so it’s just like the Victorian method of keeping still.’ 

At his inaugural exhibition at SHOWstudio (Reflecting the Bright Lights), Hugo turned the room into camera; for his second show (Developing Shadows) at Camden’s Cob Gallery, he turned the building into a darkroom, painting the walls with chemicals and projecting images to achieve what he called ‘photographic frescoes’.
Walter Hugo’s enthusiasm is infectious. It is not difficult to see his enquiring (dare we say, scientific) mind and technical skills giving a real and original power to his art. The creative side to Hugo’s nature welcomes the haphazard and unpredictable results when making the image – as opposed to demanding a perfect exposure and reproduction. He is a man on a mission and it is one we are sure to hear a lot more about in the near future.

1.Shizaru Gallery. 112 Mount St. London W1K 2TU
2.The wet Collodion process is sensitive only to blue light. Warm colours appear dark, cool colours uniformly light. Victorian sitters in Collodion photographs might look as if they are in mourning but could have been wearing bright yellow or pink.
3.See Vimeo: vimeo.com/30018469 and vimeo.com/16497712
4.Silverprint. 12 Valentine Place, London SE1 8QH

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