(Image above: Jared Ragland + Cary Norton, from the series "Where You Come From is Gone," 2017; Archival pigment print from wet-plate collodion tintype; 40x50 inches; Edition of 3)
Wet-plate collodion tintype photography is a 19th century photographic technique with contemporary novelty appeal perhaps for being an analog process connected to the past like vinyl records or neighborhood butcher shops. Sparing details of soluble iodide, cellulose nitrate, pyrogallic acid, and potassium cyanide, the collodion process requires a long exposure and a mobile darkroom—the entire process from exposure to print is done at the time and location the exposure is made. The result is a photographic image fixed onto a thin piece of tin. It also allowed photographers to get outside the traditional studio setting more easily. Photographers were able to capitalize on the relative immediacy of producing a cheaper photographic print that closely resembled its predecessor—the daguerreotype. The daguerreotype was an expensive photographic process reserved only for those that could afford it. The wet-plate collodion process however, became somewhat of a folk-art tradition with populist appeal during one of America’s most significant periods in history—expansion of the United States.
Fast forward to the 21st century and there are many things that could be considered in historical context given the cultural and political climate of 2017. Political appointments are made as though it were some time prior to the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act. Nativism, populism, and violent protests have all made a bit of a comeback in 2016/17. Not that these things every really went away. But for the sake of concise discourse however, consider the idea of remembrance. Remembrance is just as prevalent in Birmingham-based fine art photographers Jared Ragland and Cary Norton’s collaborative project GUSDUGGER—of which the series Where You Come From Is Gone is included—as it was integral to the 2016 political campaign slogan: Make America Great Again, but the two could perhaps not be further divided. If MAGA remembers a time we as Americans are to reclaim, then Where You Come From Is Gone remembers what we took and the places deconstructed to make this country what it is today. Division it seems, much like the tintype, also has novelty appeal.
Near the end of the 19th century the American South began to wrap up its reconstruction era. Almost simultaneously the Native American Indian culture had been all but destroyed through an effort like a shotgun blast that spread west, only to see the country recoil eastwardly. Having trimmed what got in its way through the Americanization of people and places, the country was settling in to what has become a long tradition of expansionism. While growth continued in the West, large populations settled into a more urban life in growing Northeastern cities. The Native American and the South did not fit all that well as the country expanded. From railroads to skyscrapers the natural landscape seemed to also be in conflict with the American way. Where You Come From Is Gone allows for us to consider the Native American Indian and the American South in the context of an era that is largely focused elsewhere. Looking at the southern landscape in Where You Come From Is Gone is a slower remembrance. Like a long exposure time, that asks that we remember more thoughtfully rather than America’s hasty land grab or more currently—trying to take back a country we perceive as lost.
Ragland and Norton don’t spare words either. Long captions accompany their photographs and fix the viewers gaze deeply into remembrance. The captions include text like “The remaining native peoples coalesced into four tribal nations – Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek – but were wiped out and forced to move by greater influx of Europeans. By the 19th century the dirt from the ancient mounds at Cahawba was used to build railroad beds.” Whether by slow and deliberate photographs or cheaply made MANGA baseball caps, we want to hold the past. If history is to remember, it is valuable then to make history tangible, to recall the dirt mounds.
In writing about Where You Come From Is Gone, I am looking at a digital selection of images from the series and it is not lost on me how much is lost in translation from analog to digital. Iodide and acid have been replaced with ones and zeros and I can only conclude that yes, much is gone. But like a twitter feed, I will have to treat it as though incomplete information is enough. And that seems to be the point of Where You Come From Is Gone. Digital representation is not the intended medium of Ragland and Norton’s work. But like looking at a digital representation of a 19th century photographic technique, like hash-tagging political slogans, how can one consider from where we came in such a cursory way? We should spend more time holding photographs and more time in contemplative discourse. It is not lost on me either that during its prime, wet-plate collodion was valued for its ease of use over its predecessor and its relative speed—two characteristics that have been valued throughout the history of photography regardless of the era. Digital photography is a cleaner (less acid) and more concise (laptop darkrooms) photographic technique, so much so it feels inaccurate to refer to it as a technique at all.
With any progress there is regression and the need for recoupment. Cities throughout the country considered most progressive embrace a return to an era gone by. Conservatives in red states fight to hold on to what has been the norm. Photographers seek past techniques to regain what might have been lost to the speed and ease of a more contemporary photographic technique. Likewise, it seems our country has regressed politically and culturally for better or worse. Like the wet-plate collodion appeal, like Where You Come From is Gone suggests, we cannot get back what is lost but we must appeal to our common sensibilities to recoup democracy through proper remembrance.