Head of Art at Giffords Circus, Joe Avery, shares his journey into wet plate photography to create the most beautiful and authentic images for this year’s programme for The Hooley.
“In the last year of her life, which is the year I got to know Nell, we would have conversations about the circus as the antithesis to the online, individualistic culture that has pervaded modern life and society.
In the circus the individual is clearly celebrated, but it’s the combined effort of the circus family that makes the show; from the techies during build up with their long and unpredictable hours right through to the artistes who’s act has taken literally years of practice. The entire circus family contribution to putting the tent up, taking it down, living together in close proximity and striving for the best possible show every single time is immense.
“The reward of course is the roar of the crowd which is audible well beyond the confines of the tent, and their laughter and smiles which remain firmly in place from exiting the tent to getting into the car.”
Giffords represents in many ways the fight back of the ‘Real’. Baudrillard observed the world as a ‘simulacrum’: a reconstruction of the thing rather than the real thing itself; a map confused with the territory. The online and Instagram culture seems to be the perfect metaphor for this. You could argue that it literally is this.
Even though Giffords may have been modelled on a turn of the century circus and this nostalgia is a huge part of the atmosphere, the reality of the experience when the music starts up and the lights go on in the ring cannot be denied. It’s so very much about the Here and Now.
I still think about these late night conversations with Nell a lot. On the lead up to The Hooley when we were talking through ideas we were both drawn to this authenticity being reflected in the artwork as well. In both our minds the famous Cottingley Fairies photos were ideal; they really did fool people back in the day (which is hilarious) and the aesthetic seemed to fit Giffords perfectly. Around the time of The Hooley map design Nell got very ill and sadly never saw the final result. I had to hold on to the threads of our initial ideas but our creative connection was so easy in the short time we were together that I could still bounce ideas off the Nell in my head and move forward.
During lockdown my thoughts returned to the Cottingley Fairies and the idea started to form of not just recreating something amusing but actually getting the equipment together to really make old photographs. By this point lockdown had further heightened the feeling of simulacrum with the world having to live online or remotely as a matter of survival.
“Even the Nell in my head was itching to do something REAL!”
So a few months later I found myself with a large format camera, a slightly intimidating (and explosive) array of chemicals trying to get Tweedy to stand still for long enough to capture his reflected light as a thin layer of silver on a glass or aluminium plate. The process is about as traditional as photography gets; predating the Cottingley Fairy (Edwardian) era in fact and sits firmly as a Victorian process. Each plate has to be coated with a mixture of collodion and alcohol and dipped into a silver nitrate bath to create a light sensitive substrate that becomes the photograph or plate: this has to all happen whilst the subject poses so that the plate is wet when exposed to the light: hence the name ‘wet plate collodion’.
The resulting images rely on not just careful planning but also a fair amount of luck. Each exposure time has to be guessed as there really is no way of measuring the light as you would with a normal photograph due to the extremely low sensitivity of the chemicals to certain frequencies of light (about ISO 1 for any geeks out there). A cloudy day might be three or four seconds, a sunny day might be one second. Over time you get a feel for it and the bad plates (which are still interesting in their way) get fewer and further between the good ones.
Over several weeks I made exposures with the members of the circus family who were staying on the farm or who were available nearby. Some of these plates make up The Hooley programme (the rest of the photography had to be digital by necessity and I’ve graded them to match somewhat so ironically (and playfully) the programme is both real and simulacrum… which is fine.
During the tour I’ll be taking many more plates; perhaps a collection will come out of it that is worthy of exhibition or publication. We hope there will be postcards available of many of the plates, including some of the those featured in the programme.
I think this process, called ambrotype or commonly tintype, is perhaps the most beautiful form of photography, with its warm tone and textures and it’s very particular sensitivity to the UV end of the spectrum (why all those frontier cowboys and civil war soldiers appeared weathered and pale eyed) but above all: it’s real and fits in with Giffords noble battle to reclaim the collective live experience of joy and happiness and real entertainment.
I know in my bones that Nell would have loved every second of it.”
You can buy a copy of The Hooley Programme that contains these beautiful wet plate images and many more from our shop.