Aaron Farrington finds new magic in a bygone photo process

Aaron Farrington’s portrait studio will open at McGuffey Art Center on November 29. Portraits from his “People of Charlottesville” series (like “Evan” above and “Rodney” below) will be on display during the Holiday Group Show at McGuffey in December. Courtesy of the artist Aaron Farrington’s portrait studio will open at McGuffey Art Center on November 29. Portraits from his “People of Charlottesville” series (like “Evan” above and “Rodney” below) will be on display during the Holiday Group Show at McGuffey in December. Courtesy of the artist

Aaron Farrington fell for photography in high school after his grandfather died. “My mom inherited his camera, so I inherited her camera and started taking pictures,” he says. Farrington became interested in making movies, too, and enrolled in a New York film school. But thanks to the expense, he dropped out and wrote a novel because, he says with his wry humor, “I wanted to do something cheaper.”

Farrington made his way to Charlottesville in 1997. “Moving here was great because it was cheap back then and it was easy to leave and come back,” he says. Inspiration came into focus on a road trip to Alaska and Los Angeles. Taking photographs along the way, Farrington returned with a lot of film to develop. “I learned how to do that and I was hooked,” he says.

Two years ago, he began shooting wet-plate photographs with a 1910 camera he found on eBay. Actually, he says, “The camera found me.” Wet-plate photography was invented by Frederick Scott Archer in 1851. It predates film and instead captures photographs on glass or aluminum plates. First Farrington sensitizes the plate by coating it with a mixture of a soluble iodide and collodion (cellulose nitrate) solution. Then he shoots the photo, which requires removing and replacing the lens cap because the camera doesn’t have a shutter. Using the portable dark box he built, he has to develop the photo before the plate dries. All of this happens in the span of 10 to 15 minutes. “It’s like a Polaroid,” he says. “Instant gratification…sometimes no gratification at all. It can be tricky.”

“Rodney.” Courtesy of the artist

Before purchasing the camera online, Farrington spent a summer shooting digital photos on the road with the Dave Matthews Band. He’d return to Charlottesville after two to three shows with about 5,000 photos to edit, but he found himself unhappy with this prospect.

“I didn’t get interested in photography because I wanted to sit in front of a computer,” he says. He recalls Nick Nichols (National Geographic photographer and founder of the LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph) saying to him when digital photography was beginning to take off, “The world is round in digital.” But Farrington has resisted this idea. “Creative constraints, I think, are good,” he says. “They can help focus us.” Now that photo editing software can give you any effect you want, he says, “It makes it seem maybe just a little less magic, and less a feeling of accomplishment.”

Farrington, who is opening a wet plate portrait studio at McGuffey Art Center this month, says the process appeals to him for a couple other reasons. One, he’s shy and it gives him something to talk about with his portrait subjects. “And the process is really fun to watch,” he says. “After you develop the plate in the dark box and bring it out into the light, it’s kind of a strange, milky negative image. You pour the fixer on it and slowly it turns into a positive and it just looks like magic and alchemy.” Another thing that makes it unique, Farrington says, is “it’s only sensitive to the blue end of the light spectrum. It means that people with really blue eyes end up with light or almost white-looking eyes.”

In an ongoing project, Farrington is documenting oral histories, shooting video portraits and making wet-plate portraits of Charlottesville residents in a series called “People of Charlottesville.” He recently exhibited some of the portraits at The Bridge, a selection of which will be on display during McGuffey’s Holiday Group Show in December. The series was born out of Farrington’s desire to record people’s stories in his own neighborhood. But his concept for the series expanded after the election, and again after August 12. “I wanted to celebrate who we are and what we are, for better or for worse,” he says.

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