Sophie Caligari is a Melbourne photographer specialising in historical photographic processes and has a mission to master all methods of photography that came before the advent of roll film. We chat to Sophie about her fascination with alternative processes and showcase a selection of her recent tintypes and wet plate images. Some images NSFW.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you first got started in photography.
I always enjoyed playing around with cameras as a kid; I have a few fond memories of winding 35mm film with my Mum watching over my shoulder or commandeering my Uncle’s handycam whenever he came to visit. It wasn’t until my high school art teacher convinced my parents to buy me a DSLR that I really began to appreciate the practice and experiment. I never felt as though I had a flair for the craft until I learned about its relationship to light and art history in my last year at university.
I decided to tailor my own education and study photography from every decade in history.
You are a fan of manual wet plate and tintype techniques; how did you become interested in these processes?
It was a combination of influences that sent me on the wet plate path. After falling in love with studio lighting practice and how easily tungsten lights give way to expressionist-style designs, I decided to tailor my own education and study photography from every decade in history. The drive to develop my practice in such a way was directly influenced by my love for old-world fashion and the integrity of construction that is inherent in items from decades past.
However, it wasn’t until I held a completed 8×10 wet plate photograph that belonged to my graphic designer that I was enamoured. I went straight to Ellie Young at The Gold Street Studios and learnt the basics of the process. I’m coming up to my one year wet plate anniversary in a couple of months, actually!
How would you define your photographic style?
I always find this to be a really layered question as my practice is an amalgamation of techniques from different decades in still image practice. The condensed answer is antique meets modern, but not in the neo-antique or neo-vintage sense that saturates the market these days with cheesy colours and airbrushing or the ‘mugshot’ style portraits that are becoming commercially popular using wet plate collodion.
My shooting style is heavily influenced by the antique wet plate process and the old-world methods of meticulous construction. I’ve always tried to incorporate cinematic elements and practices into my concepts, exploring the relationships between lighting, design, composition and other components of mise-en-scène.
My content, I suppose could be described as fluctuating; it varies from project to project depending on where I’m sourcing inspiration from at the time. I feel as though my passion for combining a traditional lighting practice with the process is my consistent stylistic element. I hope that each photo conveys my obsession with pushing the relationship between the two to its limits.
I’ve always tried to incorporate cinematic elements and practices into my concepts, exploring the relationships between lighting, design, composition and other components of mise-en-scène.
Who or what are your main sources of inspiration?
My main influences for subject matter range from the last 100 years of portraiture and the early days of cinema, traditional paintings, botanicals, scientific studies, still life and the philosophy behind memory and photographic theory. At the moment I’m looking at a lot of séance images from the Victorian era as well as 20s/30s studies of the human figure as sculpture.
What is next for you? Are you working on any projects that you can tell us about?
I’ve got a couple of projects in the pipeline that I’m excited about. In May, I will be directing a collaboration between six Australian artists. We’ll be exploring Victorian morbidity and Houdini-like séance images using both wet plate and digital practice. Each artist will design a character and pose for individual as well as group portraits.
I’m also working on a series of self portraits that will be directly inspired by fashion and themes from the 1880s-1920s (think Gibson Girls and German Expressionism). On a larger scale, I’ve been co-curating an exhibition set to launch in March next year with four other female wet plate photographers from the East Coast of Australia. We’ll be working within the theme of Australian female botanists and botanicals with all our work being kept secret from each other until the exhibition date, echoing the isolation those incredible illustrators lived in.
You can see more of Sophie’s work at:
All images copyright Sophie Caligari.