"I photograph because I don't understand something, or I'm curious about something or want to learn about something," Willie Osterman says.
In the case of cancer, one's body is what's not understood, to the specific extent that it becomes an enemy. In ChemoToxic, a show of 27 ambrotypes at Durham's Through This Lens gallery through March 12, Osterman's photographs document his wife Michele's chemotherapy and recovery from cancer, and also draw a new kind of connection between the camera and the body.
Michele was diagnosed on Valentine's Day of 2010; she had a grapefruit-sized tumor surgically removed from her left ovary the next day. She and Willie suddenly found themselves needing to learn everything about her condition and treatment options. Both the amount of information and its gravity weighed on them.
Osterman noted, "I photograph my life all the time, but when [Michele] got cancer I didn't want to photograph anything." Eventually, however, he realized that he needed a psychically therapeutic process to help him support Michele in her fight.
A Fulbright scholar and professor of photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Osterman chose to use the anachronistic wet-plate collodian process, which dates to the 1850s, to produce ambrotypes—positive images on varnished glass. The collodian process, like chemotherapy, is highly manual and toxic.
A glass panel is coated with collodian, a flammable solution that reduces the exposure time required by egg white, or albumen, emulsions. The panel is then dipped into silver nitrate to make it sensitive to light. Once photosensitized, the glass must be handled in darkness. While still wet, it's fastened within the camera—Osterman used a vintage wooden box camera—and exposed.
The picture must be processed before the plate dries, allowing about a 10-minute window from the initial collodian coating to the finished image. The final image is not so much black and white as it is black and clear, using the reflected light from within the thickness of the glass panel itself.
If the process sounds difficult, it is. There's the risk of light leaks during the process of fitting the photosensitized glass into the camera. Or destroying the still-wet emulsion as the panel is removed from the camera to develop it. Or even the emulsion simply sliding off the panel within the camera before you can expose it. Viewing the chronologically arranged works in the gallery, one can see Osterman's ambrotype skills grow with each image. In moving around the room, one can also see Michele grow healthier.
"The early ones, the exposures are bad. There's fogging, the emulsions are peeling off the plates—technologically it's very poor, as was our knowledge of cancer," Osterman notes.
"And as we went through the process of chemotherapy and both lost our hair—her hair fell out and I cut mine off in solidarity—we learned more, and things became more positive. The quality of the images and the emotional tone of the photographs became lighter."
The images look both old and new, visually referencing early photography's characteristic blurriness and cloudiness while also recalling medical imaging in the way the glass panels are mounted within black mattes and frames. Three images of Michele's bald head, vertically arranged together in the frame, look like spectacular sunrises or nuclear mushroom clouds. One of them emerges from the striated murk of its development.
Osterman's technique grew quickly, though. In one image, Michele meditates on a garden bench in the lower left corner, dwarfed by verdant trees, some slightly blurred from a breeze during the exposure time. But Michele's image is in crisp, immaculate focus. Both she and Osterman are putting mind over matter with this picture.
For Osterman, the arduous development helped. "I kind of put the idea of learning this process together with learning about her cancer," he said. The show's title is the word for the body's toxicity for up to three days after a treatment. You can't kiss your wife after chemo.
In another image, Michele shows the surgical scar on her belly. It's a frank image of both damage and healing. But it also transforms her into a kind of camera as well—the navel is an aperture, the toxic yet healing organs are the wet image developing within.
The final images show Michele's return to health and Willie's mastery over the ambrotype process. Her eyes finally smile, warm flecks in the cold glass. And the images don't seem old or dark anymore; now they are endowed with the light of Michele's triumph.