Gary Briechle was Charcoal Book Club’s photobook of the month for June 2018. It’s an interesting book, beautifully designed and full of somewhat disconcerting photographs of Briechle’s family and friends. That said, had it not been for my subscription, I might not have picked it up myself. One of the benefits of a Charcoal Book Club subscription, I suppose… Timothy Whelan was the guest curator that month, so I have him to thank for it, I guess.
Briechle employed the wet plate collodion technique for the photographs in this book. If I didn’t know that (from looking at the photographs), I’d swear these were snapshots. There’s an intimacy and immediacy in them, an almost off-the-cuff feel to the arrangement of characters and forms that just seems too familiar to be posed, but due to the process, they must be posed. Wet plate collodion is not a speedy process. The chemicals must be poured on the plate just before exposure and developed while still wet, and subjects have to hold still for quite awhile, several seconds, at least. I saw a tintype demonstration at Polacon, and Ellen Wishart rates her chemicals at about ISO .6, (not 6, point 6) if I recall, and for a 1/15th exposure just blasts her subject with about a billion watts of light.*
Briechle managed to capture these photographs, many of them outdoors, at what look like family picnics in parks, or hanging out by the lake, or stopping by a friend’s apartment to say hi, and the like, all with what seems to be natural light.
He must have a great relationship with his friends and family. In particular, his mother, who seems happy to pose for many seconds in less than flattering poses, featuring, for example, her decaying teeth, or an eye that recently underwent surgery. And not only did she let him take the photographs, she (and everyone else) had to hold still for quite awhile. It’s not like he just grabbed a quick shot: the whole set up and preparation had to have been coordinated with the sitter.
I can imagine the conversations, and I’m not sure my Mom would agree.
The process itself, and the making of the photographs is secondary to the images themselves, some of which are intriguing, engaging, spooky, momento mori-type photos, though many just fall a little bit flat, for me. I think I just don’t get what he’s trying to say, but I look at some and think, about how I waste a load of film just snapping whatever with half frame and 35mm cameras, sure, but I’m more careful and selective with medium format, and much more selective with large format, most of the time, anyway. Given the exacting times and all, the need for an onsite darkroom to prepare one plate at a time, shoot, and develop it, all within 10-15 minutes, I think I’d be a bit more selective with my wet plate shooting, and I’m sure Briechle was, it just doesn’t quite look like it.
One of the shots looks like Briechle was out for a drive with a buddy and decided to pull over and make a portrait. Both car doors are open, the friend is standing on the passenger side, his torso visible through the open door, head and shoulders over the roof of the car, and there’s a cornfield in the distance. In order to make such a picture, Briechle and his buddy had to drive out into a cornfield and pull over. Briechle hopped out, went into the darkroom that was helpfully there on the side of the road, prepared the plate, set up his camera, probably a 4×5, took the picture, then back into the darkroom, where he developed, fixed, and then dried his plate. Then, back in the car and off to the store or wherever they were headed.
Seems like quite a bit of work for a quick picture of your buddy out by the corn.
Jim Hughes wrote a great review of it back in 2013 on The Online Photographer, and it’s almost entirely about Briechle’s process, with maybe half a paragraph on the photographs themselves. There’s an excellent interview on Combustus and Briechle really digs into what he’s thinking and what the work is about. It’s clearly a labor of love, and one that wants to show people as they are, life as it is, with all the warts and wrinkles and stains, and he succeeds at it, for sure. But after about 12 slow flip throughs over these many months, I still don’t quite get it.
Overall, I give Gary Briechle Photographs 3.5 stars.
The book has an interesting design: ink-black, semigloss pages with varnished prints that just shimmer off the page. It works really well with and adds to the sinister feel of some the pictures (though the content of most of them is anything but), and I like the incongruity of it. The end of the book has some selections from Briechle’s notebooks that are rather mundane, but still feel somehow sinister or deranged. Apparently, he sent prints and notebooks to Jack Woody at Twin Palms over several years, and together, they wound up with this book.
Really, kudos to Briechle for this body of work. It’s an interesting achievement, though from perusing Briechle’s website it seems that he’s largely abandoned the process, and is now focusing on color photography and what look like oil pastel drawings, still with a somewhat sinister, deranged feel. A brief biography on that jungle site I refuse to link to claims Briechle was once a sculptor, with works in the collections of several museums in New Jersey. I’ve been unable to locate images of these, but it seems that (perhaps) he succeeded with whatever he was looking for in sculpture, then turned to wet plate collodion, found what he was looking for in the selection in Gary Briechle, and now has moved on to something else. Good for him, and I hope he finds what he’s looking for in this new work too.
First edition copies of Gary Briechle remain available direct from Twin Palms and elsewhere, and I’ve seen them on the used market as well, so pick one up if it sounds interesting to you. Timothy Whelan calls the images “deeply felt, strongly seen, and crafted images… a crystal clear giving,” and while I don’t quite get as much out of it as he seems to, I understand where he’s coming from, and you might too.
*Wishart gave the figures, but I don’t remember exactly what they were… it was a ton of light, about 10 speedlights worth.