Q & A: Nick Brandreth’s Large Format Phantasmagoria Stories

Have you ever been alone in the forest, even for just a few minutes, and seen something move out of the corner of your eye? Maybe you steeled yourself and pretended nothing was happening until your adventuring partner made their way back to you. Maybe you investigated the sound and it was nothing, or a cute little furry animal, or some sort of weird bug. But what if you heard that sound, felt a strange presence, and then turned around to find yourself face-to-face with some horrific beast you’d never had been able to imagine in your wildest dreams?

Rochester, New York photographer Nick Brandreth’s latest project, the full title of which is N.M. Brandreth’s Phantasmagoria Presents: Seeing Shadows, captures that creeping feeling by creating those ‘What if?’ scenes that you push out of your head as they come to you. For the dry plates with which he created the images, he made the emulsion himself, and chopped the 4x5 plates into 2x5s, creating a more panoramic view, and then used 3D printed holders with his Shen Hao to expose them in the field. All this on top of building the monsters, masks, and scenes himself. When the two are put together, they create photographs that look eerily like artifacts one has happened upon decades after they were (likely ill-fatedly) captured—like stumbling upon a secret you were never meant to know. When Seeing Shadows had its first show last October, one of the ways the images were presented was in what Brandreth calls, for lack of a better term, ‘peep shows,’ which are tiny boxes you can drop the 2x5s into and, depending on the light source, see them in a number of different ways.

"It was trying to get back to earlier parts of photo history when people would get together with friends and you'd have these curiosities, these little objects you would look at,” Brandreth says. “Daguerreotypes you held in your hand. And you'd take the case out and open it up and hold it in your hand and look at it. You'd have stereo views or pictures from the holy land and take them out and show your friends. I wanted to get back to that idea when I was creating this new artwork.”

Seeing Shadows will be on display in Jersey City at Mana Contemporary from April 26 until the beginning of June.

Brandreth is also the Historic Process Specialist at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, where he runs workshops that teach people how to create images using photographic techniques that span the whole of the medium’s history. The workshops provide alternative methods of creating images as opposed to simply buying consumer film for people who want to get their hands dirty.

“With a lot of photography pre-1900, everything was made by hand,” Brandreth says. “You'd go out and purchase chemicals and mix 'em together and make your own material. And there was a culture, at the beginning of photography, where everything was made by hand. I think people like that.”

Brandreth’s hands-on approach naturally suits the experimentation that large format photography offers. With the right attitude, the possibilities really are endless.

“Because of the beauty of large format, you can Frankenstein a different lens with the camera and make your own format sizes,” Brandreth says. “It's the best. It's actually cheaper for me now because I have the skills and know-how, so I just make my own emulsion and all I have to pay for is raw material.”

INTREPID: Yeah—one of the great things about large format seems to be the amount which you can manipulate the process.

NICK BRANDRETH: It's just photography, right? There's photography with a 35mm camera and photography with a 4x5 camera. If you shoot Tri-X film in your 35mm and 4x5, it's the same film, it's just cut and one has holes punched in it. But it really comes down to the equipment that you use. When you use a DSLR, your image, your focal plane never changes. When I use a large format camera, I can do swing and tilt and shift, and you can use it to have a more formal aesthetic—so everything looks precise and balanced and uniform—or you can use it the way I like to, to bend and push the image around so you can achieve a look that might not normally exist otherwise. The other thing, too, is that you don't just need to use a nice, coated, fast lens. You can take a brass lens from the 1850s. You can take a lens that's meant for 8x10 and slap it on your 4x5 camera. There are all these weird ways you can sort of tweak the equipment you're using to create one-of-a-kind images, especially nowadays. 

Go on Instagram and look at the pictures. If they're not using their phone, I guarantee they're using some Canon 5D Mark something or some Sony A7 or whatever. So there are three cameras out there people are using, and okay, you can take a picture and it's gonna look the same as everybody else, but then you put some funky filter on it that you downloaded. And their cute, they serve their purpose, but to what end? You're just hammering these out, and I think a lot of digital stuff is so sterile. Peak film was 2004, so people born in the year 2000 are 19 years old now. They've never had film. So all they're used to is this sterile, digital photography where it's just red green blue, red green blue, red green blue, and the pixels are always in the same place and it's always perfect and it's always accurate. With film, people always describe, 'Oh, with film it's different.' It is! Because it has that creaminess, that lusciousness, because it's grain—it's a physical object suspended in a medium on top of film. Light has to wrap around a crystal for you to look at that. Whereas with digital, everything's ordered and in a line, in a row, and I think that's why people are so attracted to that evocative feeling you get from film. 

What kind of cameras are you usually using for exposing your plates?

I use a Shen Hao, so it's a modern 4x5 camera, and the reason I really like that camera is it has a lot of movements—front and back, rise and fall, swing and tilt, everything. There are numbers on it, lots of knobs, sturdy construction. That's really what I'm about, because I go out there and really use my equipment. I have some friends who got these really expensive, ultralight cameras—I don't know if I like that. I don't mind it being a little heavier if I want it to be sturdy. When I first started out, I was using a Crown Graphic, because they're more affordable. Not that the Shen Hao is more expensive—it's a sub-$1000 camera, which for a large format piece of equipment is very fairly priced. But I could go out or go online or to a flea market and I could find an old Speed or Crown Graphic—and with the Speed, you don't need to have that focal plane shutter in the back, it doesn't have to work as long as the curtain goes up. So that's a more affordable way to get into it. I moved on to the Shen Hao because it's a better piece of equipment. 

Part of the problem with people not getting into large format is that they're priced out. You gotta spend $1000 on a camera, $1000 on a lens, and then a $100 pack of film. And you're like, 'I just wanna take some pictures, man!' That was the appeal of getting into emulsion making. Initially, that requires some initiative and investment. But once I have all that and have the knowledge, I could make 500ml of emulsion right now, and then melt that all down and coat 60-80 4x5 plates. And then I shoot 2x5s, so I cut them in half, so double that to 120 pictures you can take. If you think about it, a 50 sheet box of Tri-X film is over $100 plus shipping. So with $20 of raw materials and six hours out of my day, I can make 120 plates. You can't beat that.

On the other side, too, now's a great time to get into analogue photography, because in 1990 if you wanted a Hasselblad camera, that was gonna be an expensive piece of equipment. If you wanted to get a Bronica or large format camera, you were spending a couple grand to get it. Now you can go online and get a Hasselblad for under $500. All the cameras you wanted growing up, you can afford now because they're not as expensive.

Yeah—I just picked up a Mamiya RB67 for less than $500. 

You can't beat it. That camera is gonna work well for 100 years. The Canon 40D I had in college, it'll probably still work if you turn it on. But the picture quality isn't as good as everything else now and stuff like that. I can't turn on the same laptop I had back then, either, but I can always pull my film out of a shoebox or a negative sleeve and make a print.

What about historic processes do you find inspiring for your own work?

It's pretty straightforward. It's just fun, man. I like being creative, and sometimes it's important to do other things. I like to do sculpture, I like to draw. I don't paint too much, but I understand how to paint and mix colour and things like that. It's fun to be creative. Sometimes it's just inspiring to just do a different process. We think of black and white photography as 20th century, Ansel Adams. When someone says 'black and white,' that blue black and sharp, crisp white is what people imagine. But photography, if you go all the way back, salted paper prints are brown or purple. Albumen prints have a certain character or feel to them. Carbon prints have a certain feel or characteristic to them. Collodion chloride paper has a certain characteristic and feel to it. So when you're trying, in a fine art context—and I use that term loosely—just when you're being creative, you can take that. You're not just limited to Ilford paper or Epson InkJet paper. I can say, 'I want to use this and this and this,' and then you can pick it out and be like, 'I'm gonna use this for my body of work because I like the way it looks.' Or you can take it and you can use part of the way it functions to apply something, a deeper concept, to it. 

What led you to the ideas for Seeing Shadows?

I came to that idea because I love horror movies. Ever since I was a little kid I've loved ghost stories and urban legends and folklores and fairy tales and things like that. But I think the best example is growing up, around the holidays, they'd have a cartoon or TV show if you watched something on the Cartoon Network or TGIF, and they'd have regular episodes, but then around Halloween they'd have a Halloween episode. Something spooky would happen on the show. Those were always my favourite episodes. Over time, the stuff I read, the things I watch, it all sort of pointed to spooky, creepy things. 

After I was done with the upstate project, I was really burnt out by it and didn't really like the stuff I'd learned when I worked on that. The oil and gas infrastructure is such a deep-rooted thing and there's so much power there and it was scary. It's this sort of leviathan that you can't do anything against. You saw what happened in Standing Rock. They're spraying people with hoses in the winter time. Thinking about that—because that project was more documentary-based, fine art documentary but still documentary—I wanted to not be bound by the truth in any way or anything like that. So I was like, 'I'm making fictional images for everything moving forward.' Part of that was birthed out of—I don't want to call it trauma—but the sort of sour feeling I'd had when I was done with that project. Then when I was working on this project, it took a lot of testing. I had to find the right way to make those 2x5 plates, because I'm 3D printing spacers that fit in the placeholder. At first I was messing around with masks and then cutting the plates in half, so it took some testing. By the time I was ready to make the body of work—I had all these creepy ideas, I was making masks, the Trump presidency happened. 

Some people are conservative, some people are liberal, but the way I particularly felt about a lot of things, it was just a dark time. This idea that people look at a guy like Trump and say, 'Ahh, he's the problem!' And even when Obama was in office so many people said, 'Obama's the problem!' But when it really boils down to it, they're just a figurehead. There are these state senators and state congressmen and people who I have no idea who they are making these laws that make it harder for me to have health insurance or harder for my wife to have birth control or make it difficult for my brother, who's gay, to live his life. There are these sort of shadowy figures who control our lives. That's kind of where the cult figures came from with those photographs. That's the fun part about horror: you can apply these subtle things to it and feelings about what's going on in that day and age. If you watch Night of the Living Dead, it's not really about zombies. It's about social change in the '60s in the United States and stuff like that. 

And then some of it, too, is just like, I try to put myself in the situation. There's one image with a hunter with his back against a tree, and he's turning and the monster is right around the other edge of the tree. I grew up hunting and fishing and things like that, and every time I deer hunt and I'm sitting out there at five in the morning and the light's just starting to come up, and I hear something crush and russle around behind me... if I turned and that wasn't a squirrel, imagine if it was some giant fucking creature. That would be terrifying. One of the things I wrote in the beginning was, I don't know if you've ever experienced it, but I had it happen to me this morning—you're doing something and you're concentrated and you see something move right out of the corner of your eye. You turn and you look and there's nothing there. But you're like, 'Shit, I saw something move.' What would you do if you turned and you looked and there was something there? Especially in the woods. The forest is very important for a lot of my work. What would you do if you turned to look because you thought you saw something poking its head out of the corner of a tree, and what would you do if there was something there and it was staring back at you? How unsettling does that feel? It's so creepy.

The Seeing Shadows images really have this secret, mysterious feel to them, like you're looking in on something you weren't necessarily meant to see.

That was definitely a part of it. What I'm trying to do is to create this idea—the short title is Seeing Shadows, the long title is N.M. Brandreth's Phantasmagoria Presents: Seeing Shadows. I like that idea of the 19th-century showman, so that's why I went with the N.M. Brandreth part and the phantasmagoria. A huge amount of influence comes from movies and cinema and stuff like that, but a lot of it is just photo history in general. The phantasmagoria played a role at a certain point in photo history, and it was sort of like horror theatre, if you want to think about it like that. Like the proto-horror movie. People would go to a place and see lantern slides projected on the smoke and screens and stuff like that. So the idea that I make this spooky, scary work—being afraid is fun. Fear is a universal thing that everyone understands and we all experience. But there are different types of fear. Fear that someone is gonna come into my office and shoot it up, that's a heavy, realistic fear. It's not very delightful. But watching Poltergeist and seeing the chair slide across the floor in the opening scene, that's a delightful type of terror or fear. When you go to the boardwalk and walk through the fun house or on Halloween when you go to the haunted house at the old insane asylum, that's a delightful sort of terror. That's more what I'm after, that feeling that happens when you and your friends get together as little kids and you have a sleepover and you're goofing around with flashlights and scare the shit out of each other, that delightful sort of fear, that's what I'm after with these things. Nothing is over-the-top, too, because when I say horror to someone, they think of Jason and Freddy and Chucky and things like that, that '80s slasher horror. But you have Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Bram Stoker's Dracula, all the books by H.P. Lovecraft. That cosmic horror, that psychological horror, that's what I enjoy more than anything else. It's about subtleties. I don't need to have a room covered in blood to be scary. A doorway in the forest? To me that's fucking terrifying. So I try to be subtle with it. And some of them are fun, like, 'Look at that monster!' But when you look at them, because it's so easy to be cheesy with it, you could go over that line very easy and be like, 'Ah, lame.' But I want you to look at it and be like, 'Is that real?! What the hell is that thing?' That's part of the fun. With the process, the slow plates are only blue sensitive, so I have a different tonal range than if I'm using, say, panchromatic. Automatically, you're not used to looking at this tonal range, so it looks a little different to you. 

A lot of time I'm doing exposures after work, so they're only blue sensitive and the day is more yellow, I'm in the woods where it's very green, so I might have to do a two or three-minute long exposure. And that lends itself to a little bit of motion blur, so I have the model move a bit or I have them leave the scene within the last ten seconds so they have a ghost-like transparency to them. So I'm able to use trick photography. I think of all the little scenes I'm making as little movies. It's trick photography, but everything is in camera, so it's not so much like modern '00s trick photography where you're just fixing stuff with CGI. This is like the thing. Everything that happens is in camera. There's one picture with cult members standing around a triangle that's floating, and I have it boomed in overhead with some black cord. I can manipulate the image and work with the process because I understand it so well. I can create these unique images. 

What would you tell people looking to experiment with historic processes?

Obviously, the first thing I'd tell you to do is to take a workshop with me. Shameless plug right there because what we do is introduce you to the process. I already have the experience with it. For the past six years, I've helped 100 people a year make photographic material from scratch, and go out and do stuff. I've already seen a lot of the mistakes you're going to run into, I've already made a lot of the mistakes you're going to run into, so come to me and let me show you—not the right way, because I never like to say my way is the right or wrong way, because a lot of people like to chest beat and say this is the only way you can do something... There are all these ways to control your image, and I just show you a way I know works consistently well, and other people who've followed our instructions have good, consistent results with. 

At the same time, you might say, 'Well, Nick, I don't have $800 and four vacation days to come up to Rochester.' There's a lot of literature out there. You can find books that have recipes and things like that. So just dive into it, just go for it. The other thing is, so you want to try that, but you don't have the money to take a workshop, but you have the wherewithal to do that—email me. I help people troubleshoot who don't come to take workshops. I'm not gonna give you my formula because that's part of my product, but I will help you with any mistakes you might be encountering while you're trying to do this. But we always say, if you come take a workshop with us, we'll knock almost a year off your learning curve. 

Group workshops are great, because you get the chance to make something, but say there are six other people in the workshop. You make a perfect one, but then four of the other people make okay ones, and then the other person makes a horrible mistake. You get to see what they did to get success or failure. Instead of it just being you and I working one on one making perfect things every time, you get to see what a slight variation will do to your image. 

And if you can't take a workshop with me, and there's someone nearby who's teaching something cheap, go for it! There's a lot of stuff out there with information. The biggest thing is just 'Go for it.' That's the best advice. Go for it. 

Interviwed by Matt Williams | You can see more of Nick's work on his website or Instagram.

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