Images captured from international artists with a common prop theme and printed using the Wet plate collodion technique.
The Mask Series was started by Shane Balkowitsch taking a very simple collodion image of a Czech gas mask and a wilting flower, he called the plate “The Last Flower”. As a newcomer to wet plate and to photography in general, the initial image is very simple in composition. In fact, Shane was not a photographer at all and had never owned a personal camera before his wood wet plate box.
It then occurred to him to ask some of his online wet plate friends to also take an image with the mask. “If I could get just ten people to agree, we would have a series.” What he did not realize that within weeks more than 150 other ambrotypists from over 25 countries would agree to his invitation and then it all got out of control. Very quickly the collaborators realized that they were involved in the largest international wet plate collaboration since Frederick Scott Archer first invented the process in 1848. Some of the biggest names in collodion, the likes of John Coffer, Quinn Jacobson, Paul d’Orleans, Ian Ruhter, Andreas Reh, Alex Timmermans and Ed Ross to name a few have promised submissions.
The goal for this series is to raise awareness of the historic wet plate technique as an art form. This will allow artists that normally do not have a chance to share their work to participate in a collaborated effort with other artists from around the world. The ultimate goal is to have the collection shown in a gallery as a complete body of work or have it published in a book.
The prop that must be used in each image is a vintage Czech M10 gas mask. This ambiguous prop from decades ago is perfect for this series. It levels the playing field for each artist. It also highlights and allows the perspective, composition and personal taste of the artist to be the focus. Some artists may find it an inspiration, while others may view it to be a crutch or hindrance. The end result will be the unique vision of each individual artist. Gas masks have historically been used to protect people and citizens usually in times of war. In other situations a mask can be used to hide the identity of its wearer. The gas mask is also very symbolic to the wet plate process since many hazardous and caustic chemicals are used during the development of the images and most wet plate studios use gas masks on a daily basis. This type of vintage gas mask also has a presence and cannot be easily ignored. If the prop used for this process was a shirt or hat for instance, someone may not draw a line from one artist image to another’s. With the gas mask, the viewer will quickly realize the common thread amongst the pieces of work, and can then identify and understand the purpose of the collection.
The Project and Process
Once an artist decides to participate and take up the challenge, a gas mask will be sent to them. The artist then produces a wet plate collodion image of any size or type that works best for them. Traditionally, images are captured on glass (ambrotype) or metal (tin type). The only restrictions put upon the artist is that the image must be a true wet plate collodion image and that the mask appears somewhere in the image. The image and the mask is then returned so it can be sent to the next artist in line. The positive response to this series has been so great that a group of gas masks will be used so that more than one artist can be working on the project at a time. These same “traveling” masks will be used by everyone and can eventually be displayed with the collection. Once the artist returns the image that he or she has produced, it will be scanned and shared on facebook, a dedicated website and blog. The original piece of work will be safely archived for later use for displaying a complete collection with the original masks.
It is the promise of this collaboration that everyone who wants to be involved will be involved. There is no selection process. If someone wants to participate, they will be given the opportunity and their work will be given the same relevance and importance as anyone else in the group. Each artist will have as much time and they deem necessary with the mask to capture their image. The series has been capped at 150 collaborator but there is an alternate list and every effort will be made to allow everyone an opportunity to make a plate. It is our goal to have the series completed within 5 years.