The Photograph Explained: Ngaio Mala By Craig Tuffin

Ngaio Mala

Wet Plate Collodion Tintype Quadriptych of 7 x14 Tintypes

For the last few years, I’ve been piecing together some work in collaboration with the Minjungbal Aboriginal People. The photographic processes I’ve chosen to use are wet plate collodion (ambrotypes and tintypes) and daguerreotypes. I feel these are particularly appropriate to use for two reasons:

They are the very same methods used shortly after the European settlement of Australia and as such allow me (in a sense) to revisit was what done photographically so long ago.

They are processes that produce a single photographic artefact rather than prints. In the case of daguerreotypes, they display both a real and apparent image that may change depending on the position and lighting in which it is viewed. This acts a visual metaphor of the many community attitudes toward First Australians and the unique and valuable relationship they have with the land they occupy.

The title of the exhibition (due to open in at Tweed River Gallery in NAIDOC week 2014) is ‘Yahna Ganga’ (Bundjalung language – Yahna: to sit or sit down, Ganga: to hear; to think; to understand).

The narrative for this piece ‘Ngaio Mala’ (This is Me) was inspired by my relationship with Robert Appo, an incredible man within the local community. What I was particularly impressed with was his ability to successfully blend his aboriginal heritage with his chosen career, and not feel that he had to separate the two.

It took some time to organise the logistics for this particular session. I couldn’t use Rob as the model this time, so I made contact with another member of his family, Mark Cora. The time between conceptualization and the finished piece was probably around six months, with the three of us having a few phone conversations in that time.

Thankfully, I had recently purchased and modified a Foba Studio Stand that would allow me to use any of my cameras (from the 4 x 5 to the 20 x 24) from floor level to 9 feet in the air. Sometimes sacrifices have to be made in a small studio though, so the first thing that had to go was my beautiful 100 year-old Kodak Centennial Studio Stand. It truly is a beautiful piece, but was unsuited for this and other work I’ve planned. It’s found its new home with Ellie and Alan Young at Gold Street Studios. I needed accurate vertical registration of each plate and the Foba could provide that. As it was, I had to discard two plates because they failed to align themselves the way I’d planned. I carefully recorded and marked everything, from the groundglass and studio stand to Mark’s torso and foot position. I also chose to use a head-brace (hidden behind him) to ensure that he returned to precisely the same location and posture after changing his clothing between plates.

To capture the shots, I decided to use my 14 x 14 Blackart Woodcraft wet plate camera made by Steve Silipigni in New York. Just for this occasion, I made a 7 x 14 acrylic insert to support the sensitized plates inside the camera back. The lens I used was my all-time favourite 18 inch Cooke Soft Focus Portrait ‘Knuckler’ shot wide open at f4.5. This massive lens has no shutter or PC contact of course, but that’s never been a concern. Exposures outside are most often measured in seconds, not parts of a second and I was using studio flash. It’s not that hard to pull the cap off and remote fire the strobes after all.

Craig Tuffin van camera

The salted collodion I used was about 3 weeks old…fast with just the right amount of contrast. The ferrous sulphate based developer was mixed the night before Mark’s visit, as I like to give it just a little bit of time to ‘calm down’ before using it. I looked at the forecast and saw that the temperature was going to be a bit higher than normal so I made a sugar-based developer and threw in a little more acetic acid and distilled water to restrain it’s action on the plate, therefore reducing the chance of unwanted artifacts. A small amount of nitric acid and potassium nitrate was also added to boost up the highlights and overall tone. The fix was a 2% solution of potassium cyanide as it washes out quickly and gives warmth to the final plates. After drying over a catalytic heater, I decided to selectively burnish the silver on certain parts of the plate to bring specific attention to them.

I called Mark and organized a time for him to come in on the following Friday. I asked him to bring some appropriate local dress and a tie (I already had the pinstriped suit). He arrived and after a cold drink and casual conversation to relax him, I walked him through what we would be doing that day. The tie he brought with him had some wonderful aboriginal dot painting art on it…a very nice surprise. The headshot was first, so I sent him to the bathroom to prepare his kookaburra face-paint while I moved some lights around. Wet plate collodion is a slow process, so a lot of light is needed in the studio. I used a 6000ws Bowens floorpack with a 6k head and large softbox as a keylight and a 4000ws Elinchrom floorpack with a 3k head and standard reflector for fill. The background was in the form of a light blue paper roll (to produce a clean white with this orthochromatic process) lit by a Bowens 3000ws floorpack split between two heads.

We allowed nearly a full day to complete the work. An advantage to using these one-off processes is that the sitter gets to see the finished product the very same day. It also allows me to ‘creatively modify’ on the spot to get things just right. Mark did an excellent job at returning to the same pose after each change, but we discovered that wearing the suit places his arms in a different position to where they hang naturally when he’s unclothed. After carefully marking his arm and torso position on the ground glass of the camera, we managed to get the centre two plates to align themselves perfectly. That left only one plate to go. I worked hard on that final plate to give his forward hand a little more attention, and we were done.

Caravan darkroom

It’s important to me that this work isn’t seen as just another white mans opinion on aboriginal matters. All of it has been the result of intense collaboration with the local aboriginal people. Rob, Mark and I discussed the narrative in depth after consultation with the aboriginal advisory committee and I feel honoured to have been given approval to continue. Although the exhibition is due to open this year, ‘Yahna Ganga’ will continue to be an ongoing series of work.

Craig Tuffin with 20x24 camera

Craig Tuffin

Craig with 20 x 24 camera in front of his mobile darkroom.
Interior of mobile darkroom.
Converted Transit Van Camera, capable of producing 24 x 32 negative.