Landscapes haunt Bryan Hiott. The fine art photographer made his mark documenting the decay of the Carolina textile era as its mill structures fell into decline, creating visuals that paralleled the remains of Civil War battlements.
The work led to teaching at the New School in New York City and an MFA at Parsons, where an assignment at Gettysburg changed the trajectory of his portfolio. An exhibition of original tintype photos at the visitor’s center captured Hiott’s imagination.
“I wondered if anyone still taught the process. There is a beauty in it,” he says. “The way light can be captured on a metal plate [is] not found in a digital world, and I couldn’t get away from wanting to know how to do it.”
He found a weekend workshop at the Center for Alternative Photography in New York City. The process was daunting— everything formulated by hand, including the applied chemical compounds, and nearly no one was doing it. Even today, as demand for tintype photography escalates, Hiott says less than 1 percent of professional photographers are attempting it. Collodion wet-plate-process photography hails from the nineteenth century, invented in 1848 by English sculptor Frederick Scott Archer, who disliked the lack of contrast produced by daguerreotypes of the day. Hiott learned to prepare collodion in the archival manner, combining guncotton (a propellant), ether, and 190-proof alcohol. In essence, collodion is an adhesive poured onto a sheet of metal backed with asphaltum. The method is multi-tiered, scrupulously measured, and precisely timed.
Hiott returned to Greenville three years ago to teach, both at Wofford (his alma mater) and at Furman. Most of his wet-plate photography features images of the botanical world surrounding a new studio space at Taylors Mill. But, it was a request for a tintype portrait that led him to warm-blooded subjects.
“I wanted to explore personality using tintype photography,” he recalls. “The images appeared vintage only from the antique process. These were portraits that felt new again.”
Pushing the boundary of portraiture, Hiott began to allow defects to occur during development that intentionally created unique images. A speck of pollen or the angle of the collodion pour would alter a tintype photo, creating border striations or fractal formations.
When he photographed and scanned these inclusions into high- resolution detail, he discovered a world of chemical topography unlike anyone knew existed. The manipulation has led Hiott back to landscape, though of a microscopic variety.
The new series, titled Abstractions, includes nine works. Each amplifies a grid-section of the same collodion plate. Hiott is working in conjunction with science faculty at Wofford to discover how these patterns form, and, as he puts it, “the why of what it is.”