Jen Jansen's portraits are a protest against progress. Not that she would say so herself, but it's hard to browse her antiquarian photographs and not reassess the self-assured strides of technology in the 21st century. Now that the digital revolution has delivered the means of production to the masses, the power to photograph is stowed in pant pockets everywhere. And this trigger-happy cohort is doing its best to wallpaper the entire Internet with cell-phone pics of every moment everyone's ever had (or since time started counting in, like, 2007).
It's against this backdrop that Jansen has reverted to the wet collodiol process, one of the first methods of photography dating back to the 1850s. It requires painstaking care. And it's the complete antithesis to the kind of logic that runs culture-shaping kingdoms like Mountain View and Silicon Valley.
"It seems backwards to go 160 years back in time, but I love the process; I love the complicated thing," Jansen says while snapping on a pair of plastic gloves in her studio at the Glashaus collective in Barrio Logan. The tang of ether charges the air. With great focus, she pours an ominously clear chemical solution onto a tiny metal plate and coats the surface evenly by tilting it without spilling a drop. "There's value in the slow brew," she says.
Fast it's not, nor easy or cheap, and caution is advised, as the chemicals aren't quite as innocuous as your family Epson printer. But the results are chilling. Subjects stare out like angels-dead angels, if that's possible-with sad and indecipherable secrets. In her "On Photography" essays, Susan Sontag remarked that "photography offers instant romanticism of the present," and here that romanticism speaks to death and impermanence. Those proverbial chills might be due to the intuition that these images will far outlast the subjects-the people usually captured by this form have been dust for so long that it's almost unfathomable to conceive of them as living beings. But Jansen's portraits (www.jenjansenphoto.com) are of folk one bumps into every morning at the coffee shop. How can it be that a mere picture makes contemporaries seem so hopelessly lost in another time and place? It's like looking at the present from the other end of a very long telescope.
"For me it's all about permanence, it's like a modern time machine," Jansen says. "I can give you something you can communicate with your great-great-grandchild in 200 years. In that length of time, you wouldn't be able to pull a digital print or disc out of the ground and know what's on it. Who knows if computers will even be around?"
It seems, then, that Jansen's attraction to the wet collodiol process is a flirtation with immortality. Not for people, but for objects that can be passed down the generations. Her career-which includes tinkering with vintage cameras and restoring old photos-has turned her into somewhat of an expert observer of the ravages of time. It's not pleasant to picture a similar fate for one's art. One spends all this time to make an image appear just so, and then time, with just as much ease, hauls that image back to oblivion. While becoming familiar with many types of photography of the last century, Jansen noticed that "as we've moved on, what you're actually getting lasts less and less time than what you got before." And those are just the photos that actually make it off the hard drive.
"You put a lot of self in the process. It's all coming from you your own two hands, and then all this time and effort in three years can fade," Jansen says.
But the wet colloidal process, which began its long, slow adieu in the 1880s with the advent of dry plates, should also be praised for its uncanny crispness. The fineness and density of the silver crystals in the solution enable the film to capture the most miniscule of details, all those rich imperfections that no one's eyes have any patience for noticing in real time. Historically, this has meant long exposure times, which accounts for the stiff postures and blurry spots in the older prints. But, thanks to modern lighting, Jansen's cut down the exposure time to just a few seconds.
Since only a handful of obscure artists and Civil War fanatics are brave enough to screw around with the wet collodion recipe, there's no company out there selling a kit or anything half-resembling convenient or affordable. Jansen buys the chemicals from a medical supplier and then mixes them into proportions she's developed on her own inside a small dark room in her Glashaus studio. Aluminum plaques from a trophy store serve as plates. Photos must be taken and developed one at a time. That might explain why Jansen is the only photographer in San Diego doing portraits this way. She charges $125 a pop.
But is it process or product that attracts us to these artisan pieces? So far, modern machines have yet to replicate the uniqueness of a hand-crafted object. Such a possibility seems absurd, and yet perhaps not far off. If technology ever becomes sophisticated enough to seamlessly mimic these labors of love, would antiquated processes be valued solely for the sake of the process? Jansen seems to think yes. She finds the intricacy of making the photos compelling enough.
"If your iPhone could print out this permanent print, perhaps my thinking would be different," Jansen says. "But for now that's not the case."