Interview with Maris Rusis
Old-time Photographer: Gelatin-silver photograph on Harman Direct Positive Paper 8×10 exposed in a Tachihara 810HD triple extension field view camera fitted with a Fujinon-W 300mm f5.6 lens. The Harman Direct positive Paper was pre-flashed to reduce contrast and then given a camera exposure of 3 seconds at f5.6. Development was in Dektol 1+2, fix was in Hypam 1+4, and a 30 minute archival wash followed.
When, how and why did you first become interested in photography?
I was the typical geeky kid. By the age of 12 I’d read every art book, every science book, every encyclopaedia and dictionary I could find in the Toowoomba Library. They had a particularly strong holding of big photography books and I saw (and absorbed) a lot of Ansel Adams, Ed Weston, and Alf Stieglitz pictures.
Later I became a University bod pursuing Sciences, Mathematics, and Philosophy. As leavening to the hard bread of science I made art: etchings, watercolour paintings, and acrylics. Later I bought a 35mm camera body to take pictures through my 12 inch Newtonian reflecting telescope. Studying this camera and its possibilities tempted me to try to master photography. By the end of the first year I’d made over 10000 negatives of everything shot every which way.
What influences you and your photography?
The original impact of the verisimilitude of photography persists. After a lengthy journey through 35mm candid work, a mountain of colour slides, commercial work for some multinational companies, freelance opportunism including parties and weddings (oh, the shame) I’m back where I started: with the adamantine clarity and certainty of the large format photographs that jolted me as a bookish 12 year old.
You’re known for using large format cameras. Do you work solely with this format? Tell us a little about the gear you work with.
It’s nearly all large format. There are a couple of 8×10 Tachiharas here, half a dozen 4×5’s (monorails and field), a few dozen lenses, and, it seems, every accessory and filter ever made. When large format is impractical roll-film goes through a Mamiya RB67 system or a Bronica GS1 system or a variety of twin lens reflex cameras.
The other half of the resource is the indulgently equipped darkroom, a collection of enlargers from 8×10 down to 35mm, and a workshop for all the associated tasks from filing to framing.
You’re also known for your strong opinions in regards to traditional methods and a disinterest in digital photography! What draws you to traditional/film photography?
A number of formal and mildly abstract philosophical considerations pertain.
There is no such thing as digital photography. It’s digital picture-making. Photography is the production of pictures out of light sensitive substances. Digital picture-making consumes no light sensitive substances; therefore not photography. And the thoughtless chorus of millions of digital picture-makers doesn’t legitimise the “digital” equals “photography” fallacy. Aristotle listed this kind of fallacy in his perceptive analysis of informal fallacies. In philosophy it’s usually referred to as the argumentum ad populum fallacy.
Beyond semantics there is a deeper reason for making pictures specifically out of light-sensitive materials. Digital methods have an identical workflow to painting and drawing save that some of the processes are mechanised rather than being wholly manual. In particular digital picture-making, painting, and drawing, fall into that huge category of image making techniques where information is transformed into a picture by the controlled actions of a mark-making device.
Photography belongs to an entirely different class of image making techniques which are few in number but powerful in their implications. These alternative methods do not use, practically or conceptually, notions of “information” or “controlled mark-making devices”. Examples of this small group of image-making techniques include life casts, death masks, brass rubbings, wax impressions, papier mache moulds, coal peels, footprints, and (stunningly) photographs. The key thing here is that the subject and image have a direct physical relationship. Nothing is transduced into information. No information is downloaded by a mark-maker or shape-maker.
In contrast to nearly every other picture-making process you will ever see the authority of a photograph to describe its subject matter emanates not from resemblance but from direct physical causation.
What challenges or difficulties do you face working with film these days, if any?
Photography is a mature medium with technical and aesthetic difficulties largely solved years ago. Within the limited genre of silver-gelatin photograph-making things have never been easier. Film and paper are cheaper than digital requisites, equipment is abundant, and the technology resists obsolescence. The absence of commercial considerations means the work is free of the vexed and hectic pressures of general purpose picture-making or the industrial scale production of printed illustration.
What benefits would you say working with film offers?
Apart from “quick ‘n easy ‘n cheap” working with light sensitive materials affords the privilege of making very special pictures with that very special authority over subject matter…see above. That same authority enriches a viewer’s experience of a genuine photograph. Explicitly, or more likely instinctively, people still see a photograph as carrying truth and trust while all things digital are presumed to present at least some taint of artifice or deception. Photography also saves me from having to compete against 50 million talented and energetic snappers with digital cameras climbing over each other’s backs trying to get noticed in a world glutted with digipix.
What subjects do you enjoy photographing?
I’m principally a landscapist but turn to portraiture, the nude, close-ups, and technical subjects occasionally. Usually the expressive idea comes first and then the challenge is to find the subject matter strong enough to carry the load of similes, metaphors, synecdoche, and metonymy needed to complete the communication. Yes, that’s the real chore: chasing subject matter. Camera-work and materials processing is trivially easy in comparison.
What have been your favourite projects and why?
Recent projects include high-country forms like snow gums, snowfields, rocks, clouds, crags, lakes…the usual preoccupations of a landscapist. A secondary pursuit is making and using lenses with anomalous characteristics: soft-focus, stigmatic, “swirly” bokeh; that sort of thing. The notion is that visual meaning can be carried by the actual structure of the real optical image that will land on the film. And it’s only view camera users that have direct and detailed access to that real optical image.
Can you tell us a little about your workflow and process in the darkroom?
All films are developed in Xtol-replenished or Dektol for calibrated times established by testing. The Xtol-replenished batch is seven years old, has hundreds of films through it, and is working sublimely well. Negatives are exposed, either by projection or contact, onto variable contrast fibre-based gelatin-silver paper. Paper processing is standard and everything is washed to archival standard in a Paterson Major washer fitted with a tap timer.
Can you name some Australian photographers you admire?
Apart from the crew on Large Format Photography Australia who are all admirable, even the ones who don’t actually do large format or make photographs, there aren’t many names at all. I’ll call out Gordon Undy, friend and gallery director, for his exemplary platinotypes. I don’t know enough about the tintypists, wet-platers, pin-holers, and alternative practitioners to appreciate their achievements; my loss.
Where has your work been shown? Where can we see your work now?
My photographs were first exhibited in Brisbane in 1984. Subsequently exhibitions occupied a variety of local and international venues. At present my photographs go through Point Light Gallery in Reservoir Street, Surry Hills, Sydney. The Director there, Gordon Undy, mounts some occasionally on his walls. The stock of Maris photographs lives in a Solander box stacked among others labelled George Tice, Paul Caponigro, Linda Connor, and some such famous names. By prior arrangement with the gallery white glove inspection of photographs can be arranged. There’s no hard sell. Tell ‘em I sent you.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Photography is too much a solitary pursuit, a dark and surly art, in which its practitioners tend to turn inwards. Your site Large Format Photography Australia brings much needed illumination. Thank you.
Whirlpool, Kondalilla Falls: Gelatin-silver photograph on Agfa MCC 111VC FB photographic paper, image size 24.5cm X 19.6cm, from a 8×10 TriX negative exposed in a Tachihara 810HD triple extension field view camera fitted with a Fujinon-W 300mm f5.6 lens and a #25 red filter. The whirlpool at the base of the Kondalilla Falls turns slowly but a 2 minute exposure was sufficient to record a dynamic swirl.
Nude with Sand: Gelatin-silver photograph on Ilford IB4.1P photographic paper, image size 24.5cm X 19.5cm, from a Kodak Tmax 400 8×10 negative exposed in a Tachihara 810HD triple extension field view camera fitted with a Fujinon-W 300mm f5.6 lens. Titled, signed, and stamped verso.
Lake Jindabyne, Flooded Path: Gelatin-silver photograph on Ultrafine Silver Eagle VC FB photographic paper, image size 15.8cm X 21.3cm, from an Arista EDU Ultra 400 4×5 negative exposed in a Tachihara 45GF double extension field view camera fitted with a Schneider Super Angulon 75mm f5.6 lens and #25 red filter. Titled and signed recto, stamped verso.