One man finds innovation in an art more than a century old. by Amanda Bedgood

Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2013

Bruce Schultz brings the magic of steampunk to life in this portrait of Rick
Rowan and Andre Guillory at the Steampunk Festival in Lafayette.

Bruce Schultz hasn’t used film in more than six years. The photographer, however, hasn’t been using digital either.

“I had kind of gotten bored with film, and digital was becoming predominate, and I was looking for something different,” says the man who’s been behind the lens for more than three decades.

What he found was wet-plate photography.

“I was hooked,” Schultz says.

Since taking a workshop in 2007 covering the age old method, his photography has become a unique kind of art in that both the result and the process are each an art form. Wet-plate photography uses a gelatinous substance to coat a plate before chemicals are mixed; the plate is then dipped into a bath of silver nitrate and the surface becomes light sensitive. The plate is removed from the silver bath and is placed wet into a film holder. The photograph is taken in a brief window of minutes while the plate remains wet, and it’s developed on site.

It’s a method created in the mid 1800s that soon became the way soldiers of the Civil War could send images of themselves home to loved ones. By the late 1880s, tintype was replaced by dry plates.

It sounds like a lot of trouble, but that’s art. It’s not at all about convenience — it’s about process and results.

“I just wanted something that would give an image that was different than what everyone else is doing, and that was my main motivation,” Schultz says.

And while Schultz didn’t expect to find himself immersed in this unique method, in some ways it’s not a surprising path for a man who’s long had an appreciation for history and experience in photography.

“As a kid we lived all over the country, and if we moved somewhere and there was a historic landmark I would want to read the roadside signs of the nearby events,” Schultz says. “I’ve always, always had an interest in anything connected to history.”

Perhaps it’s why he appreciates this method. Why he so loves the handmade process of it all: “Everything that I do from mixing chemicals to cleaning the glass ... everything is handmade, and it’s one of a kind.”

He now frequents Civil War reenactments and can be found at local festivals like the Black Pot Festival; he also does demos for historical societies and libraries. And he recently found himself on the set of the cult favorite American Horror Story.

A portrait of Tom Pierce taken during the 2012
Blackpot Festival.

They wanted both a photo from Schultz and film of him performing the process. And he only got one chance to make it happen.

“I only got one shot because they had to put the film on a plane to go to the lab for the dailies the next day. There was pressure to get it right, and it was a rush to do all that in just a few minutes and a big film crew around watching me do it. I managed to pull it off and got the images and the footage needed. That was fun.”

Next on his list is a vintage baseball tournament in Ohio. The boy who loved history is now the man capturing the now for the next generation.

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