Missoulian photographer Tom Bauer took about 190 frames of Lee Silliman during the interview for this story.
“That’s almost a year’s work for me,” Silliman observed. “And at $5 an image, that’s more than $900 worth of film.”
In this era of instant, automatic photography clicked on cellphones, Silliman offers a negative approach. Not negative as the opposite of positive; but slow opposed to snappy, bulky over bite-sized, and considered instead of computerized.
He shoots a Wisner Technical Field 8-by-10 view camera that weighs about 15 pounds before you put a lens on. Each piece of film he exposes captures more than 2 gigabytes of information. One day in a hurry, he was able to get the camera out of the car and shoot two pictures in 25 minutes.
“That’s the fastest I’ve ever taken a picture,” he said. “One of them turned out OK.”
After three summers of mule-packing 80 pounds of camera gear around the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, Silliman’s latest collection of photos can be seen through Feb. 27 at Gallery 709. But don’t come expecting wall-sized blow-ups from those 8-by-10s. Silliman prefers to make contact prints, where the negative gets exposed on a piece of photographic paper sandwiched under a sheet of glass.
“I don’t like to enlarge,” Silliman said. “As the image gets larger, it gets fuzzy and loses contrast. I’m not that practical with darkroom chemistry, and I don’t have patience with dodging and burning. I want the straight print, just the way I saw it.”
And the way he sees it is upside down and backward, as he looks under a hood at the reversed image on his ground-glass viewfinder. The perspective, and the loss of color, force him to consider a scene by more abstract principles of composition and contrast.
“I wish he’d blow one of these up to 16-by-20 or larger, they’re so detailed and dense,” Gallery 709 owner Don Mundt said of Silliman’s contact prints. “There’s more interest in this type of photography than just enlarged photos of landscapes. People think, ‘I can get my phone out and take a picture like that.’ But it’s like ceramics. There’s so much to the process even though it’s just a piece of clay.”
Now retired from a 43-year career as a chemistry and physics teacher at Powell County High School in Deer Lodge, Silliman got hooked on photography when he started volunteering at the Powell County Museum. The institution has a collection of 30,000 photos from the Smith-Hartley-Thompson collection of ranch and rodeo life in 1930s Montana.
“Working with those beautiful old negatives really got me going,” Silliman said. “I wanted to have a camera that would do that.”
He started with a Nikon 35 mm and three lenses, which satisfied him for about 10 years. Then he moved up to a 4-by-5 view camera. In 1989, he ordered a hand-made 8-by-10 from Wisner.
“They made me wait a year for it,” he said. “They’re out of business now. I used Kodak film until the early 2000s. They doubled the price, then tripled it, and then stopped making it. Now I have to get the film from the Czech Republic.”
Then he went looking for images. With family and friends, he spent dozens of summers prowling the back trails of Yellowstone National Park, the deserts of the American Southwest and the Bob Marshall.
“We usually hire outfitters with mules to get us into a backcountry camp,” he said. “Then we take day hikes to some objective or another – a ridge or a waterfall or a canyon.”
Silliman eschews the “magic hour” tradition of dawn and dusk photography. He gets up early, but typically spends most of the morning getting to a vantage point. He shoots through the middle of the day, hikes back to camp, and spends the evening reloading film, logging image records, and preparing for the next day.
“I may shoot 24 frames a day,” Silliman said. “That really forces you to say, ‘Is this picture going to be worth the film?’ It’s not like being out there with a digital camera going click-click-click like a machine gun.”
Even with that careful consideration, Silliman figures he brings out one “exhibition-grade” photo for every 10 shutter clicks. Every one of them, however, goes into an acid-free envelope cross-referenced to a card catalog and a flip-book of duplicate images he makes with a digital camera.
“I like the artistry, but I have a scientific background,” he said. “I do everything methodically.”
He follows the technique of iconic landscape photographer Ansel Adams. And he keeps an equally devoted eye on 19th-century engravings, including impressive collections of John Audubon’s wildlife studies and classic magazine images of the Wild West. In between, he maintains a framing shop in his home for both his own work and that of local museums and galleries.
I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire,” Silliman said. “I’m retired and full-time busy. I’d love to buy all the free time some people waste.”