Since beginning the Selma Portrait Project, I’ve had the pleasure of photographing over 35 people in my converted wet plate studio. This project has truly turned into a labor of love for my hometown. I’ve fallen in love with every single person and their story. I’ve had many intriguing conversations and with each person, connected on a deep level with their lives. I’m not sure if everyone that comes through my door feels the same about their experience as I do, but I feel that each person has given of themselves like they were giving a gift to me.
I've cried when participants (I feel that this isn't quite the right way to describe who is visiting my studio, but I'm not sure what else to call each sitter) have been here, I've cried after they've left, I've watched participants cry and cried with them while they were here. What this tells me is that there is a lot of emotion for Selma, a lot of love for Selma and a lot of hope for Selma.
Over the years, I’ve thought so much about this project. Before I was actually able to get started and as the years passed by, I thought about what the photographs would eventually look like. I had an idea of what I thought this particular project should look like. My very first blog post delved into how I wanted the images to look—polished, posed and deliberate…staged. Something I was going to MAKE. As I look back on the images, they still look polished, posed and deliberate. But that polished, posed and deliberate look is quite different from how I originally intended them to look. This isn’t a bad thing, but something that I have ruminated on as I have pondered the project and it’s progress. What exactly is happening as the photograph is made? I know that an exposure is physically being made, but there is a spontaneous nature to the photographs that has been totally unexpected and very exciting to see happen as the images unfold.
Each participant has truly been a collaborator with me and I have tried hard to allow their personality to show through with their individual portrait. I’ve wondered if it’s a good thing that I have not deliberately made the images deviate from what the sitter feels comfortable with. For example, if a sitter has wanted to smile, I have agreed that this might be a good idea and we’ve tried an image that features a smile. Sometimes a participant can’t help but smile as I remove the lens cap. In wet plates, the sitter is usually very solemn and contemplative. I’ve ultimately let each person be themselves and with that, I have allowed my own vision of the end result to grow with each portrait participant. I never would have thought that this project would be twisting and turning into what it has, but I’m so very glad it has. But that’s the nature of the medium and as a wise collodion image maker once told me, “if I wanted something perfect, go shoot a digital image.” Well said!
Selma is a place that is forging ahead and learning how to make its way back to once again being the “Queen City of the South” just as I am learning how to portray its citizens. Creating this project has allowed me to learn a great deal about the wet plate process, but it’s also taught me that try as I might to control how an image looks, in the end, it’s the subject’s unique demeanor and personality that determines the final outcome.