Shooting photographs of nature has never been simpler for amateurs. The result is that they've become too familiar, whether they're crisp smartphone pictures, with or without filters, or high-definition images with saturated, unreal color.
Brock Mickelsen began to notice the familiarity. "My landscapes felt a lot like everyone else's," he said. Digital photos were too sterile, so he began searching for film techniques where he could loosen his control on the pictures.
His new photographs, black-and-white images of the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness, are rendered with a watery surface texture and silvery pools of color that sometimes resemble action painting.
For his thesis exhibition, titled, "Agency Panic: A Reckoning of Place," Mickelsen took advantage of the unpredictability of the elements and an old-fashioned photo process to impart his landscape images with character, as the environment interjected itself into the development of his photos.
After finishing an undergraduate degree and he decided to pursue photography, the Wyoming native and devotee of the outdoors wanted to learn how to "infuse his work" with concepts and ideas that had a lasting effect.
He enrolled at the University of Montana to pursue a Master of Fine Art degree, and began working backward in time toward more primitive techniques, eventually coming across one of the oldest: wet-plate collodion photography. The process requires a glass negative that must be coated, sensitized, exposed and developed on location, in a span of as little as 10 minutes. For that reason, it's more familiar from portraits than landscapes — Mickelsen said it was replaced by a simpler dryplate process for outdoors images.
Sally Mann, a contemporary photographer who uses the wet-plate process, described some of its idiosyncrasies in an episode of Art21. She said a picture should "have some peculiarity to it, or it's not worth taking."
She explained that, from a technical perspective, her plates are "horribly flawed" but she wants them that way. While she's working, she says a little prayer that goes like this: "Please don't let me screw it up, but screw it up a little bit to make it interesting."
Starting last November and continuing through January, Mickelsen made trips to the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness near Helena. He knew the area, which had an intriguing landscape after recent fires, was light on snow during the winter. He scouted it out by taking a run through the area, and he hauled all of his gear in — 50 pounds over 6 to 8 miles. He stashed his small portable darkroom in a cave and shot pictures in about a mile radius. After he was done each day, the sun setting near 5 p.m., he would haul his camera, tripod and chemicals back to his pick-up, where he'd sleep for the night and wait for first light, around 9 to head back in.
With some of the final, untitled pictures, he knows what caused a technical flaw. The curling effect around the images indicates that the collodion failed. "It was too cold or it started to dry too quickly," he said.
That silvery expressionist effect occurred because it was about 10 degrees and the chemical started to free before he could expose it, and it "destroyed" the top half, in the process creating a more memorable image.
In one photo, the landscape is flecked with ghostly white dots, "apparition-type things," that resemble a heavy snowstorm. He's not sure what caused them and doesn't really want to know. If he did figure it out, he might be tempted to control it.
"It's more about that conversation with the place, that is extended through a language that I don't really speak," he said.
To give an idea of the control being surrendered, he said that the photos were "really all or nothing." He'd either end up a minimum passable image or an "utter" failure.
The final photos in his MFA show are 42-by-53 inch digital prints, accompanied by a display of the original negatives. In the neighboring hallway, Mickelsen arranged another aspect of his installation.
The writing, in a loose, journal-like script, extends in lines across one wall and then continues on the other. They're records of his impressions from taking a run through the area: "Up — a deceptive guide — up — winding up — up — up — ankle-deep snow — the illusion of traction."
He's long been a runner, and finds it's his "most sincere and honest way to understand a place is through movement," whether a city or a forest or a mountain. He recorded some of the runs, and the audio is played on speakers in the gallery. With low-frequency footfalls, it almost resembles an underwater recording.
He said he feels as though they're a "distilled experience within a space," and "how I can still relate to and think about place when I'm not there."