Reaching back over 150 years into photography’s past, Atlanta-based photographer Mary Anne Mitchell has resurrected the 19th-century art of wet plate collodion photography for her exhibition “Meet Me in My Dreams.”
This early, very technically complex photography technique, in which images are captured on glass plates, has been embraced by other contemporary photographers including Sally Mann. Unlike other early photographic processes, the collodion process allowed photographers to create multiple prints of their desired subjects, making it the progenitor of today’s conception of photography as something endlessly duplicated.
It is testament to Mitchell’s ambition and vision that she has made the effort to dip into photography’s history and the complex collodion process for her engaging solo show at Chastain Arts Center Gallery.
“Meet Me in My Dreams” pays homage to antiquated photographic techniques in a number of ways: in featuring actual collodion plates — six gossamer, chimerical dark squares of glass magically endowed with images. “Meet Me in My Dreams” also includes black-and-white prints Mitchell has made from this photographic process, so that we can better appreciate the unique look, including the imperfections and the strange visual effects that can give these images, as Mitchell’s title suggests, the dimension of dreams. Also included: vintage stereoscopic viewers and a selection of stereoscopic cards, which allow images to appear in 3-D when seen through the stereoscopic viewers. The images themselves feel like a random mix of Mitchell’s interests, including landscapes and portraits.
Though technique is foregrounded in this show, Mitchell is also after something in terms of subject matter. The exhibition takes its cue from a poem written by the artist emphasizing the overlap of reality and dreams.
Mitchell’s subjects and scenarios often evoke the past, staging scenes of old-timey carnival performers, or eerie masked figures trotting through the forest. The imagery feels like a potent blend of old and new influences, part vintage photograph, part “Donnie Darko,” part silent movie. One of the artist’s fixations are vintage carny folk: strong men, fortune tellers, carnival barkers and knife throwers. It’s a cast of characters straight out of a Tod Browning movie. When she dips into the past in this way, Mitchell shows a real finesse for capturing an antiquated, period feel that jibes beautifully with her analog technique.
Other images can be uniquely unsettling, suggesting nefarious doings in the woods, as with the man in “Hidden Seeker” wearing a rabbit’s head mask. He lurks behind a tree as if waiting for his prey, his posture made doubly creepy by the presence of a child’s playset on the edge of the forest.
Mitchell is certainly adept at using the wet plate collodion process’s imperfect, distressed surfaces to amplify their emotional, magical pull. The one thing lacking, especially amid her endless, not especially rewarding photos of soulful young women in period garb posing for her camera, is a consistent point of view: an idea sustained throughout the exhibition that would unite technique and vision. As it is, Mitchell has beautifully demonstrated her skill set. But she’s just shown the tip of the iceberg in terms of foreboding, nostalgic imagery. Now it’s time for her to unite both.
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