Not long after Alex Timmermans purchased his first digital camera at the turn of the century, he quickly realized the trappings of digital photography couldn’t fulfill his personal photographic desires. He then began searching for a more challenging process — one that wasn’t so predictable. His journey eventually landed him back at the roots of analogue photography, specifically employing the wet plate collodion process using original Petzval lenses. This antique photographic process found in him a renewed inspiration and has since become his passion, which is evident in both his words and his images.
Hello Alex. Can you give us an introduction to yourself and what you do?
I am a self taught photographer based in The Netherlands. My interest in photography began when I started shooting with my father’s Nikormat camera. I bought my first digital camera around 2000, but never really liked the feeling. It was all too predictable and not challenging enough. However, the wet plate process caught my attention in 2008 and from that moment on, I knew I’d found what I had always been looking for. This process is so challenging — creating an image which begins by mixing your own chemicals, using antique cameras and rather simple, but beautiful, Petzval lenses. It may sound strange, but the amount of work it takes to make just a single picture returned the joy of photography to me.
When were you first introduced to Petzval Lenses? What is particularly interesting to you about them?
I had already began collecting antique cameras and lenses before I discovered the wet plate process, so I already owned some Petzval lenses but wasn’t using them. When I discovered the wet plate process, I then discovered the beauty of these lenses. I love the shallow dof, the softness towards the outer lines and sometimes the swirl. Imagine — the lenses I use are more than 150 years old and made by hand! At that time these lenses were a revolution, fast and tack sharp in the center — ideal for making portraits.
Do you have a favorite Petzval lens to shoot with? Which one and why?
As I have several, it depends on the plate size I want to make. For my outdoor work on 12×12, I mainly use a Dallmeyer 3a (16”f4) or a Dallmeyer 5d (19”f6).
In my studio, I use a 16” Hermagis f4.5 up to a Dallmeyer 8d (37”f6) for 60×60 plate size. All Petzvals, of course.
Apart from Petzval lenses and the wet plate process, what other photographic methods are you interested in?
To be honest, at the moment none. I still have so much to discover about the wet plate process. I love trying different formulas and experimenting. I’m working on a long term project — my Storytelling series — that will take me a few more years to finish. But don’t get me wrong — there are so many beautiful antique processes, but for now I will stick with wet plate.
What is the most challenging aspect of shooting with antique equipment?
Combining a beautiful photographic process with the use of antique cameras and lenses is just fantastic to do. Making amazingly detailed plates while using very “simple” equipment is so extremely exciting. The cameras are just a “box” and the lens design of a Petzval is also very simple. Just a brass tube and 4 pieces of glass. That’s it.
Personally, why do you think it is important to preserve these antique methods of photography?
Just to show that you don’t need a 50 million pixel camera to make beautiful pictures.
Don’t misunderstand me — I am not against the digital process. I have even seen stunning work made with a simple iPhone. So, you don’t need a bag full of expensive cameras and lenses to make an interesting picture. It’s the person behind the camera who makes the picture. Not the camera itself.
Antique processes will never become extinct. A great comparison is the CD and record. There will always be lovers of both.
Story telling plays a big role in much of your work — what inspires these photographic stories?
I started with shooting portraits with wet plate, as most of the wet platers do. And I still love to make pictures of strong characters. But I wanted to raise the bar for myself and to use this process outdoors. Since shooting landscape isn’t my thing, I started my Storytelling series. I have a creative mind which is filled with crazy ideas. The challenge for me is to find the proper locations and so on. For now, I have more ideas than locations…
But the Storytelling series was my breakthrough. Several galleries were interested in my work and for now, I have 4 galleries in Europe and the USA featuring my work.
Who are some other photographers that inspire you to keep creating?
There are several photographers who inspire me, for instance, the famous Dutch photographer, Erwin Olaf. He’s extremely talented and a trendsetter. Also, Robert and Shana Parkeharrison, Teun Hocks and many others. There are many other undiscovered photographers who also inspire me. There is so much talent across the globe!
Do you have any words of advice for anyone who is interested in getting into antique photography?
All I can say is: “Just give it a try.”
Some processes are even easier to do than you might expect. If you have the space and time, just do it. You don’t need to have expensive stuff to start. I have seen fantastic analogue work made with just a simple brownie box camera which you can buy for 10 euro.
What’s next for you in terms of projects and exhibitions?
As mentioned before, the Storytelling series will take me another few years to “finish”. In May, my work will be exhibited at the Paris Photo Los Angeles 2015 [The International Art Fair for Photography and Moving Image] in the Paramount Pictures Studios. Then in September and October, I will have a solo show at my gallery in Amsterdam. Also, I’m looking for one or two other galleries in places like New York, Berlin, Paris, Hong Kong, etc. Perhaps a gallery owner who’s reading this article is interested…
A huge thank you to Alex for sharing his time and incredible work with us. We’re looking forward to seeing what amazing wet plate creations he comes up with next!