Skater Girls' Portraits on Wet Plates by Jenny Sampson
Based out of Berkeley, California, Jenny Sampson has quite a few caps to choose from, in addition to her photography career. With a major in psycho-biology and a day-job as a caterer, it's a wonder how she has time to work on her photography. She first held a camera in 6th grade therefore the passion became more of a necessity than a hobby. After her first book, "Skaters" published by Daylight in 2017, her second photography book is out for pre-order. "Skater Girls", also published by Daylight is an ode to female skateboarders across the US. Shot entirely on wet plates, Jenny shares the process entirely with her subjects, transforming a portrait session into a communal experience. We talked to her about her career, her book, and the challenges and rewards of shooting on wet plates.
Hello Jenny! It’s an honor to have you here at Lomography. First off can you tell us how did you get into photography? Especially analog photography?
Thank you for having me here – it is, likewise, an honor. When I was growing up, my dad always had a camera in his hand – Canon A-1 and Canon AE-1 or the Canon Super 8 (I guess he was a Canon guy!) We had family slideshows and movie nights and I adored those nights. When I was about 10 years old, my parents gave me a Kodak Instamatic and I began clicking away at summer camp and school. In the 6th grade, I learned to process film and make prints in the darkroom. I never stopped. (My older brother also took photography in high school, and I looked up to him, so of course, was going to follow in his footsteps.) Regarding analog photography – I would have to say that “analog” wasn’t a word I associated with photography until relatively recently, even though it was about 2003 when digital cameras began hitting the scene. (I wasn’t ever really interested in digital.) I had been a devoted black and white film photographer until about 2007 at which point I decided to expand my horizons and took workshops in platinum/palladium workshop with Kerik Kouklis; a color printing class (color film ”wet”/machine darkroom) at Rayko Photo Center (R.I.P.) and a photogravure class with Unai San Martin. I loved all those classes and, except for the color, considered migrating from silver gelatin work to those other modalities. But it was the wet plate collodion class I took at Rayko with Michael Schindler that immediately took hold of me.
How did you start shooting wet plates? And why do you still shoot wet plates today?
Well, as I mentioned, I learned about wet plate in 2008 at the Rayko Photo Center. I was often at Rayko printing silver gelatin prints and one day, Ann Jastrab showed me a tintype Michael had made of Bill Daniel, who was working there at the time. It was beautifully holographic, tactile – simply gorgeous and I hadn’t seen any contemporary tintypes (and knew practically nothing about them). I signed up for the class straight away. In the class, I was jumping up and down in the darkroom watching the plate clear in the potassium cyanide fixer. I was instantly hooked. I called my friend, Kevin Kline, who lives in New Orleans to tell him all about wet plate collodion. (He used to move in with me in Berkeley as an escape from the dreadfully hot and humid months of summer in NOLA and we would play around with photo-related activities; I had to give him a head’s up for what was to come
that summer). Why do I still shoot wet plates today? It became a part of me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I love the chemistry; (I make all my chemistry from the raw ingredients – I know that nowadays you can purchase pre-made collodion, developer, etc., but when I began, you had to make your own and I wouldn’t have it any other way.) I love cutting the plates; I love considering and setting up the shot; I love sharing the process with my subjects; I love watching the plate develop and clear in the fix; I love the finished plates, the waxing or varnishing of the plates – the entire process.
What are some of the challenges you face shooting this technique?
The biggest challenge, I suppose, would have to be the weather since I always work outdoors. Temperature and humidity, as well as wind and dust, play an important role in how the chemistry responds. Secondarily it would be the physical aspect which mainly pertains to when I shoot out in the field because sometimes I have to travel far from my car and I don’t always have an assistant. This means all my equipment plus tons and tons of water. But I rarely think of that as a challenge because it’s always just been a part of the game. You cannot hurry this process, you must take your time, be patient, be gentle. That part of it has been therapeutic for me.
Are you a skater? What relationship do you have to skateboarding?
I am not a skater. I did, however, learn to skateboard at summer camp – I won 3rd place in the competition! (There were three girls who competed that summer.) These days, I live vicariously through all the skaters. It can be thrilling to watch them depending on what they are skating – vert ramps, for example, are totally thrilling! Regular skate park shredding just looks super fun. If I weren’t so concerned about getting hurt, I might try to learn, but as a photographer and a chef, I kinda need to not be broken. Maybe next year!
How did you decide to start shooting women and non-binary skaters? Why is it important to photograph this particular subculture?
When I began photographing skaters, my modus operandi was to photograph literally any skater whose attention I could muster and then who would say “yes.” I knew there were
all types of folks who skated and I was after anyone. However, I was always psyched if there were women/girls skating – but just because they were at the skatepark didn’t mean there was an automatic “OK.” I still had to get their attention, which can be really challenging because often when people are at a skate park, they’re there to skate and they’re not paying any attention to me. Anyway, nearing the book deadline for Skaters in early 2017, I came upon a group of female skaters at a skatepark in Emeryville (Northern California). I hadn’t seen such a girl posse at the skateparks I visited over the years. I was stoked and asked to photograph them. I remember saying “It must feel so good – you get to take over this skate park!” They laughed and agreed. They told me about an organization that focused on girl skaters called Skate Like a Girl that was putting on an event in the coming weeks. I decided in that moment I would seek out Skate Like a Girl and go to their event. I also remember thinking to myself “when I finish shooting for this book [Skaters], I am going focus only on photographing the girls.” Meeting that group impacted and inspired me in ways I couldn’t have known. It was a turning point not only because I knew what lay ahead for me [Skater Girls], but because there were so many stereotypes about skateboarders that crumbled away in my mind the more time I spent with them and the massive population of girl and non-binary skaters perhaps was the last major false stereotype. Perhaps, though, the stereotype isn’t quite accurate. Perhaps I should clarify that they’ve always been there, there may not have been as many gals as guys, but the folks who had the loudest voices were guys, so that’s who most people heard about.
What kind of relationship do you develop with your subjects?
To begin with, I should say that I really admire my women skater subjects. They are fearless, fun-loving and supportive – I think about how lucky they are to have this community. They are always in a good emotional space when I am with them, and so am I, so I feel like we come together in this unique, cohesive way.
Can you explain your process?
If I am at an event, people might notice me – or more often my camera (8x10 Eastman View No.2) and ask what I am doing and I can generally cull enough interest to photograph them. Sometimes no one stops to talk, so I will approach them and ask. After the person has agreed to sit for me, I explain the photographic process and show them examples. We talk about how we will set up the shot. Then I prepare the metal plate in my darkroom, essentially making my “film.” I pour salted collodion onto the plate – the collodion acts like a glue layer in a sense. Then the plate is submerged in silver nitrate to sensitize it to light; while it is still wet, I load it into a plate holder and then load that into my view camera. I take the picture which is usually about a 4 second exposure, and then return to my darkroom to develop the plate. After development, I exit the darkroom to fix the plate. At this point my subject can watch part of the magical process. Often there is a scream of joy! Then the tintype is washed and dried. The entire process takes anywhere from 15-40 minutes.
Why was it important to have this series shot on wetplates?
When I made my first skater tintype in 2010, I was immediately struck by the beauty and bond of merging a contemporary culture with a 160-year-old photographic process. The inherently slow process of wet plate collodion results in tintype portraits that radiate a unique honesty not often found in modern, faster processes. I find they offer a glimpse into the subject’s character, and to many people, skaters maintain a stereotype of rebellion, but in fact they are so much more than that. They are pensive, strong, playful, innocent and fearless. My first series, Skaters, were tintype portraits and my Skater Girls work is a continuation of that. Skaters is not just guys, though. It’s all the folks I met and were willing to sit for me.
Will there be a follow up to this book? Or do you have another project cooking?
Well, this is actually my follow up! My first book is called Skaters, also by Daylight Books in 2017. I will keep photographing skaters, though. Just because the book is out doesn’t mean I am finished yet! And I always have something cooking. It would be pretty awesome to be in Tokyo next year for the Olympics, for example, the first time that Skateboarding is an official Summer Olympic sport. The weather will not be on my side, though – hot and humid! I am also working on a series called Oculus which is a still life series most often of plants and foods (chef/catering influenced).
Do you have any tips to give to someone who wants to do a long term/documentary series ?
Oh, that’s a good question. I don’t think I was conscious of what I was doing at the start of this whole thing way back in 2010. I had to overcome shyness and insecurities. I suppose I would suggest to pay attention; don’t rush things; remember that things won’t happen unless you make them happen, so just keep moving forward. Make a real connection to whatever subject it is you want to explore and document. Talk with people involved in what you are documenting; be kind and respectful.