Wet Plates and Portraits with Rikard Österlund

If you popped in to visit us last month, you’ll know that we had a focus on photography for our February programme at No.34… This was in part due to the presence of Rikard Österlundour Gallery artist for the month. His exquisite exhibition attracted quite a lot of attention and understandably so. With a mix of plate photography and more traditional black and white prints, Substrate was certainly a spectacle.

Photo credit Rikard Österlund

Each new exhibition tends to bring fresh faces into No34 which is totally understandable; different artistic practices appeal to different tastes. It’s always enjoyable engaging with even more of the local community though, especially when we get to play a part in connecting fantastic artists with new, supportive audiences. For some of No34’s exhibitions, the pull of intrigue lies in the familiarity of the artwork. With Substrate perhaps the opposite was true; the process of wet plate collodion is striking but unusual. The desire to learn more drew people in and it’s clear from how full No34 became during the two demonstrations on February 4th, that there was a lot people wanted to learn.

Wet plate demonstration attendees
Photo credit Kyra Cross

Wet plate photography is an intricate art form. ‘It’s a little bit of a race against time’ Rikard commented knowingly. ‘The process locks you into working a certain way.’ Being one of the earliest photographic processes, it requires a little more precision than capturing a burst of images that almost every smart phone on the market can do in an instant. Just like the process itself, Rikard talks about wet plate photography in an easy, nuanced manner, as if it’s now simply second nature. The technique ‘enables you to create a photographic image onto a substrate of your choosing’, Rikard informed us, ‘Hence the name of the exhibition!’

Photo credit Rikard Österlund

The substrates most commonly used these days are aluminium or glass and the process involves pouring collodion, which is a syrupy sort of substance, over the plate before placing it in what is essentially a silver nitrate bath. Once removed, the image becomes light sensitive, so Rikard loads it in the dark to his photographic magazine and then takes the picture. The process is in-depth and intriguing, and even Rikard admitted it ‘takes a long time to get your head around’. There’s no denying however that the results are strikingly remarkable.

‘It’s called wet plate because all the way through the process the plate has to remain tacky and moist, because if it dries up at any point, it loses sensitivity.’

The beauty of having Half Term sandwiched in the centre of the month meant that we played host to some great lateral engagement (which is really just a fancy way of saying that our events served as starting points for different people to engage in different ways.) Attendees to Rikard’s demonstrations later returned for our decorative decoupage day, while families attending our selfie studio and sci-fi animation used the familiarity of these events as a springboard into accessing more unique art, such as Rikard’s wet plate photographs. In fact, the printing of wet plate photos proved to be so popular that Rikard was prompted to return to No34 on March 1st, specifically for a second additional portrait session.

It was during this second session that Rikard felt he developed some ideas for creating future work. He acknowledged that some of the images he produced ‘are the seed of something’ and we at Ideas Test are already excited for the outcome. One focus for the work Rikard exhibited was the ‘relationship between pictures’ rather than the message of each individual print and this was demonstrated effortlessly in the way Rikard utilised the window and wall space at No.34. We know it’s not the most conventional building but Rikard assured us he enjoyed ‘the freedom I had when it came to hanging stuff’. Substrate was a particularly intriguing exhibition in the sense that Rikard masterfully utilised the Window Gallery and Stairwell Gallery to showcase two differing bodies of work. While he found the Stairwell space ‘a bit more challenging’, with it’s high walls and sharp turns, Rikard’s eye for maximising its potential shone through. The prints were placed with precision and Rikard summed up the effect perfectly: ‘It was literally like a waterfall of pictures’.

Photo credit Rikard Österlund

He went on to say that out of the many exhibitions he’s had in the Kent area, that ‘this is probably the one where I’ve been able to see the reaction of people really clearly’. Rikard’s right – our windows are starting to attract more and more attention and seeing people looking at, and more importantly enjoying, your work is the sort of achievement every artist aims for and that Rikard most certainly deserves.

If you are interested in viewing more of Rikard’s work, please feel free to visit his website.