Noah Doely is a San Diego based photographer who makes photographs using 19th century methods. He currently has a solo show (through June 30th) at Steve Turner Contemporary in Los Angeles. Here’s an interview I did with him.
Jim Newberry: Tell me a bit about your photography background.
Noah Doely: I started to get seriously involved with photography during undergraduate in Iowa. I worked with a wide range of film cameras. Increasingly I became interested in using the camera as as a tool to document staged events or performances. For the work I’m currently doing I use the wet collodion process which I learned by taking a workshop from John Coffer in upstate New York.
JN: The photos on your web site–are those scans from the plates, or scans of prints from the plates? Do you do any Photoshopping of the images at any point, or all effects done on the set? Could you talk about how you come up with ideas for the photographs, and how you make them happen? The scenes are very elaborate. Do you work with an art director? Where do you get the props and wardrobe?
The photographs on the website are scans of the plates. I shoot them directly off the scene onto tin or glass and that is the final product. Occasionally I’ll make a negative to print albumen prints from, but usually not. The images can’t be manipulated digitally, so if I want to alter the image I have to manipulate the scene itself.
The projects begin in very different ways from one another but broadly speaking, the idea for each photograph begins with a vivid mental image that I use as a starting point to generate a story/gesture that I want to explore. After some minimal sketching, I establish a visual framework that will change and evolve as I produce it. Most of the time is spent building sculptures or props, which often requires research as I usually end up acquainting myself with a new set of tools and working methods with each project. For example: with my most recent project I learned how to use the lathe. I collect other props, build sets, paint backdrops, acquire costumes, position lights, and search for models. At some point in the production, I set up my camera and begin taking test shots to see how the space manifests itself on the glass plate. After this begins a back and forth between the photographing and the building, painting, positioning, and lighting until I get the scene where I want it. When I get everything in place, I make the final images.
JN: The details in the props for “A Natural History” are really something, that must have taken a lot of work to find all those great little objects, and then to assemble them into a beautiful arrangement on the guy’s back–nice work. And that moon (“The Expanse of a Fact”) is amazing, could you briefly explain how you built that? Finally, in “Capturing Spirits,” did you use a long exposure to make the spirits translucent, or something else (and by the way I love the capturing device)?
“A Natural History” essentially became an extensive collecting project. I was constantly hunting for objects from the natural world, arranging and rearranging them. For the moon piece I built a wood/wire/paper mache sphere and coated one side of it with plaster and then spent several months carving it. In making “Capturing Spirits” I used double exposures, movable sculptures, and makeshift pulley systems.
JN: Have you made films, or do you plan to? Looking at the photographs I can’t help but think it would be great to see these characters and sets in a film, although there’s something about the frozen image that that leaves more to the imagination.
I’ve been involved with film projects that other people have done but I haven’t made any films of my own. I would like to make a film at some point but I suspect it would be quite a bit different from the photographs. I have no idea how I would approach it. The frozen image works well for what I am doing now. There is something meditative about spending months building a single image or a single moment into existence.
JN: Do you have gallery representation? Have you considered selling prints from the plates, or the plates themselves?
I’m represented by Moberg Gallery in Des Moines, Iowa and I sell the plates themselves.
JN: What are you working on now–more of this series? Something else?
I just finished a series of photographs entitled “The Expanse of a Fact” that are on display at Steve Turner Contemporary in Los Angles through June 30th. I am back to the experimentation stage right now. I have a lot of projects on deck, only a fraction of which I will actually have the time to do because each one requires so much time. Some of them are extensions of this collodion work- some other things entirely, like a series of paintings.