Keliy Anderson-Staley - 2014 Carol Crow Memorial Fellowship Recipient: On a Wet Bough

  May 9 - July 6

May 9 - July 6, 2014
Opening Reception: May 9th

“On a Wet Bough: Contemporary Tintype Portraits” is a series of tintype portraits made with chemistry mixed according to nineteenth-century recipes, period brass lenses and wooden view cameras. Composed of thousands of portraits, the project is a broadly diverse collection of American faces. Each individual--identified only by a first name--defiantly asserts his or her selfhood, resisting any imposed or external categorizing system we might bring to these images. At once contemporary and timeless, these portraits raise questions about our place as individuals in history, and the role that photographic technologies have played in defining identity.

The title of this series, drawn from a short poem, “In a Station of the Metro,” by Ezra Pound (“The apparition of these faces in the crowd/ Petals on a wet black bough”), refers to the transient nature of the photographed face as well as the liquid nature of the wet-plate collodion process. In the poem, the poet is struck by the ghostly nature of faces that suddenly stand out, like fragile flowers on a wet branch, from the blur of faces around them. My tintype images capture faces over many seconds and bring a person’s expression into sharp relief for our consideration. Each face emerges from the swirling chemical background of the plate, as if it is breaking the surface of water. It is crucial that they stare back as I see each portrait as a collaborative effort, with the sitter shaping the image that represents them. My exposures are long, and during the full 10 to 30 seconds I expose the image, the sitter becomes deeply aware of the image they are projecting of themselves. Although I pose them, they have control over their expression, over the persona that ultimately comes to represent them.

The individuals I photograph look contemporary, but there is also something anachronistic about these images as if they have been detached from time, and the viewer cannot quite put them back in their proper context. Yet, with their contemporary dress, and hairstyles, they can only truly belong to the current moment. The project hopes to draw attention to the fact that images of ourselves exist within a history of images. Our identities are linked to the visual history of social difference, a history in which photography has not always played an innocent role. The nineteenth-century collodion process was frequently used for “scientific” ethnographic studies of the human face, many of which were based in racist assumptions about physiognomy. This project seeks to be a counterpoint to that history by restoring agency to its subjects.

This is an ongoing series of portraits that was exhibited in earlier incarnations as “[Hyphen]-Americans.” The images were shot all over the country at nonprofit art spaces, universities and museums. For the exhibition at the Houston Center for Photography, I will exhibit an entirely new set of tintypes that I am currently making. I have scheduled shooting events at a number of venues in Houston, and the subjects of the new tintype portraits will be the people of Houston.