Gallery Space: Nostalgiagram
Photographer Giles Clement captures the soul of imperfection
By Kate LiebersPublished June 1, 2012
Giles Clement spent the spring transforming a pleasantly sparse apartment into an 18th century photo booth.
His tiny bathroom, porch and kitchen are functioning chemistry labs, stained and smelling of fermented ethanol. In the office, the closest thing to technology is a large format camera with an accordion-style shade linking the lens and the focusing screen. Sixteen finished portraits hang on one living room wall, Clement’s personal gallery.
Every room in the apartment is used to create a single photo.
The entire process can take up to an hour. At the apex of the endeavor, Clement’s subject must sit for four seconds, perfectly still.
That is the only kind of perfection he is looking for.
“At some point, whenever I pick up a (digital) camera, I know exactly what I’m going to get, and it just gets boring,” Clement said.
The wet plate method he currently employs is far less predictable. Water can bubble between the glass and the image. Alien flashes of light can manifest. Streaks can either stain or augment the actual image.
“I want there to be accidents,” he said. “A perfect photo doesn’t have any soul.”
Those “accidents,” more like surprises, are typically confined to the border of Clement’s portraits. The center captures a hauntingly crisp image, retains depth and emotion that is lacking in most photos.
The glass medium conjures a sensation similar to looking into a mirror. Except with Clement’s portraits, you are staring into the soul of a stranger.
“If someone’s uncomfortable with the way they feel about themselves, then I’m uncomfortable taking their picture,” Clement said. “What they’re thinking comes through in the photo.”
In an era in which his generation is heedlessly snapping digital photos, often replacing cameras with smartphones, and regularly using filters to make mundane images instantly artistic, Clement is running backwards from this trend.
During his 10-year career as a photojournalist, Clement became all too familiar with the contemporary photographer’s tendency to mindlessly shoot hundreds of photos while on assignment. He operated on the logic that, the more photos are taken, the higher one’s chances of catching the perfect image.
Since transitioning to the wet plate method, Clement has gone from averaging 400 photos a day to about four.
The process, he said, gives him a new appreciation for taking a photo.
“I think it’s definitely made me a better photographer,” Clement said.
He considers himself the anti-Instagram. He even bought the web domain uninstagram.com, although he has not yet put it to use. Both techniques, the wet plates and photoshop filters, tap into a trend of nostalgic aesthetic. Yet whereas Instagram has become wildly popular, Clement doubts that wet plates will.
“It’s a gigantic pain in the ass. You should see my bathroom,” he joked.
He said the only ones who dare commit to the time-consuming and expensive hobby are “a small group of crazies.”
Clement hopes to bridge that gap between vintage and digital, scanning and selling the photos online. He also plans to turn his hobby into a commercial practice, inviting people to sit in front of his camera the same way important figures, war-torn lovers, and your great-great-great grandmother did.
Clement's work offers a refreshing reprieve from the click-and-go culture of pocket cameras.
“There’s enough people taking perfect photos with their phones,” he said.
He considers the wet plate method, which holds its photographer in an hour-long suspense, a bit more magical.
Clement’s portraits can be seen during the month of June at Wine on High, 789 N High St., and Old Familiar Barbershop, 116 Parsons Ave.