Lyle Rexer

Immortal Impressions:

The Ambrotypes of Sergei Romanov

“We do not know it because we are fooling
away our time with outward and perishing
things, and are asleep in regard to that which
is real within ourselves.”

— Paracelsus


An alchemical conversion takes place inside the photographic studio of Sergei Romanov.Its elements are chemicals, glass, light, and time. It is the conversion of an antique photographic process into a contemporary medium of extreme expression. It is the conversion of the bare space of the studio into a stage for fantasies of desire and masquerade. It is the visionary conversion of the familiar into the extraordinary, the seductive, and the disturbing. These pictures are made with the ambrotype process—a one-of-a-kind image captured on glass—and represent a new stage in photography, the so-called antiquarian avant-garde, the radical rediscovery of obsolete processes. By ignoring all the rules, Romanov goes further than any other contemporary photographer in pushing his medium into imagistic territory it never approached before. He doesn’t care about good taste, or perfect craftsmanship or total control or conceptual strategies. He possesses the deep conviction that what is most important—and most often missing in today’s photography—is an ineffable spirit. And he will risk everything to evoke it. When he succeeds, his images have the uncanny physical presence of the living body, the primal magnetism of sexuality, and the hypnotic involvement of a hallucination, awaking dream.

Romanov manifests these qualities through two different kinds of studio encounters, equally resonant but clearly distinct: close-up studio portraits and more elaborate staged tableaux, enacted with the collaboration of his subjects. At first glance, the two approaches seem to represent different worlds, but actually they are intimately connected, and neither can be fully grasped without the other.They are two sides of a dark and luminous coin, and the ambrotype is the perfect medium to capture them.

This is a strange and wondrous photographic process, which truly appears wondrous only now, after its usefulness has long since been superseded. Ambrotypes were perfected in the 1850s, after the Englishman FrederickScott Archer patented a process for coating glass with a light-sensitive emulsion called collodion. A normal exposure yielded a glass plate negative from which prints could be made. This became the industry standard for photography. But if slightly underexposed and backed with dark material, the image on the plate appeared as a positive—the ambrotype. In the hands of an experienced professional, the ambrotype’s detail nearly matched that of the daguerreotype, which was made on a silver-coated plate. Ambrotype images had an extraordinary depth, almost an etched quality, and they were cheaper to make and easier to view because they were not so reflective. They soon rendered the “mirror with a memory”commercially obsolete. The very derivation of the term ambrotype—from two Greek words meaning “immortal impression”—conveys its alchemical, even magical, fascination. And it suggests why, in a digital age, Romanov would have revived it.

First and foremost, it is a one-of-a-kind image.It cannot be reproduced and does not generate copies of itself. It can only be shared physically. The ambrotype is an embodied image, a unique presence, even if it also represents an absence, that is, a subject that is no longer there—no longer present to the camera and already physically different and distant in time from the person captured.Think of a standard photograph as a copy of appearances and the ambrotype as a kind of double, or ghost. Romanov heightens this parallel presence by courting imperfection, accident, and limitation. He taught himself how to make the formulae for the emulsion, how to pour, expose, and develop the plates.

The surfaces of his plates are not perfect but often mottled and raw. They are full of uncontrollable light reflections, “like living substances,” he says. He often plays with focus to give his portraits by turns an uncanny clarity and ghostly vagueness. Romanov uses an antique lens, which can increase the softness of the image and the radical way in which the central focus quickly falls off. The surfaces of such plates can also change overtime, almost as if they, like the body, could age and even disintegrate.Is Romanov, then, a technophobe, a monk, a photographic hermit in full retreat from the digital world? Anything but. He is well skilled in the advantages contemporary technology has given to photographers. But through the ambrotype he gains access to psychic and visual dimensions of photography that other varieties do not provide: resonances, associations, and revelations overlooked or forgotten in the spread of digital technologies.The images they produce, remarks Sally Mann who also makes ambrotypes, never come to ground at all—they only circulate in digital ether.

“Come to ground” possesses a powerful mortal suggestiveness. And for Romanov, mortality is the ambrotype’s primary appeal and underlying theme. His first encounter with the medium was viewing on line post-mortem images of Victorian-era children: it was a common practice to photograph recently deceased children (and adults as well) in an age when death was a close companion. As one advertisement for a photo studio of the time read, “Secure the Shadow, Ere theSubstance Fade. Let Nature Imitate whatNature Made.” The point was both to remember and to resurrect the lost person, to invoke a presence more substantial than a mere image. Here Romanov’s nearness to the alchemists is uncanny: just as they sought impossible conversions of matter, he seeks impossible conversions of inanimate materials to animate images.

The Other Side of the Mask

Such is the lofty goal of Romanov’s ambrotype portraits. He picks his subjects at random or at close hand, people he knows or complete strangers. The portraits give no clue as to these relations, and the subjects choose their poses. For all that freedom, it is very obvious that Romanov is searching his subjects for something behind or beyond appearances.
As he puts it, “I’m not interested in a complimentary photography. As I said, I don’t concentrate on a person’s posture or position or technical details to improve their appearance. I don’t want to interrupt the transmission of the essence, the spirituality, the soul of a person. I’m not interested in photographing “masks” that people put on.I just try to make a portrait of a human being with no time, no posed emotions, no staged settings—just a portrait.

That’s it . . . To my mind all the rest is a lie.”Many contemporary photographers have noted the gap in portrait photography between outward appearance and the sitter’s inner world and have tried to minimize it, most often by reducing the expectations for a portrait. They seek neutrality, impersonality, non-coercive presentation, the granting to the subject of maximum autonomy. Don’t ask what’s going on inside the people they photograph, or who they really are. Only facts.But there the similarity ends. For Romanov, such deadpan attempts are soulless, one dimensional:“they take grayish-green file sand then with the help of various computer programs you add and change colors. So what do you call it? A miracle of modern technology?” With ambrotypes, he celebrates the fact that he can never take the same picture twice or make multiples. Like human beings themselves, ambrotypes permit no duplication.
But the soul? Is such a thing capturable? Can we recognize it if we see it? How many photographers have sought or claimed to have seized it! Diane Arbus called this hidden thing “a secret about a secret.” But one thing is for certain: Romanov’s ambrotypes live in the mind in ways that other images don’t.

Digital photographs live in the eye and feel as if they reside somewhere on the retina.Romanov’s ambrotypes seem to peer into us.They are strangely animated, which makes them seem all the more spectral. And if I admit the term apparition then I am, indeed, dealing with principles that operate both in and beyond the visible realm. Sudden and immediate, these wisps of silver on dark glass demand that we attend to them. Their presence requires our presence. In exhibiting their strange form of being, they make us preternaturally aware of our own.

Rites and Rituals

On the deepest level, we can see now what draws Romanov to the ambrotype: it is its unique combination of matter and spirit—a tangible medium that sustains an intangible image. It is the abyss between mortality and intransigence embodied in an object. Put in a different way, the ambrotype represents a meeting of realms that bestow on images the power of a fetish. Very few photographers understand such connections because they work in an abstract medium: photography for them is all about images. But Romanov understands them and so do the people who see themselves represented in his images.This is why his subjects give themselves up completely to the medium’s invitation to perform, to become part of an imaginary rite, the goal of which is to evoke the force of sexuality in the face of death.

Consider what happens in Romanov’s studio: a visitor confronts an unwieldy, not to say ancient camera. With its emulsion-covered plates that must be swapped out after each shot, it bears almost no resemblance to a high-tech digital apparatus and creates a special, almost ritual relationship with the sitter. That ritual does not merely produce an image—it summons a presence and channels an energy. And it seems to require some special effort or sacrifice on the part of the subjects, an opening to the desires and forces within them. Romanov does not tell his subjects in these costume dramas how to pose or what to wear or what gestures to make. They devise the ceremonial dress and tableaus in the presence of the all-seeing/soliciting eye. Any outrage is acceptable, any form of beauty is celebrated. It is no accident that, with his female subjects, the scenes involve dominance, submission, hints of bondage, exoticism, and seduction. Even the human and animal worlds meet in some of the masks and costumes they wear. The camera and the ghostly transparency of the images themselves, which seem to come from another world, grant a fantastic permission to the visitors in Romanov’s studio, the permission to become the image, to imagine themselves as another presence, a true double or ghost of themselves, the opportunity to discover an unfettered expression of the unconscious. In this space where anything can happen and nothing is prohibited, males are often transformed into sacrificial victims or comic figures, and women turn to each other for passion and sensual experience. Their gestures border on extreme narcissism because that’s what they have to do. It is the only way to fulfill the promise of the ambrotype, which is to see yourself as unknown, an object and expression of your desire.

Such extreme imagery can succeed only if the body’s reality is constantly invoked, so that to see is to touch with the eyes—as Shakespeare put it, to “see it feelingly.” Romanov’s instinctive brilliance is to use emulsions and exposures in such a way that his images appear raw. They may glitter or glow with a veiled light, but they feel physically touched, in some cases unclean, profane, direct from the unconscious. The most powerful evocation of this is also one of the most romantic, in a classical sense: Romanov shot several ambrotypes of a ballerina named Irina and, in spite of her diaphanous costuming, the images are anything but delicate. With their extreme contrasts of tone and focus, they carry a sense of intense physical exertion and bodily engagement, even when the model is at rest. They resemble the passionate realism of Caravaggio, who transformed conventional religious subjects into physically immediate situations, while never giving up the otherworldly importance of his themes.Invoking Caravaggio here has wider implications for Romanov’s position in the art world. Like Caravaggio, he is a rule-ignoring outsider and he follows the painter in his ability to explore the most outrageous content while compelling assent. You cannot and do not want to look away. This means he has no distinct place but an unusual value: to remind viewers of underlying realities that everyone else ignores or devalues; to hold up to an abstract, conceptual age, the beauty of the image, the primacy of the body, and the sovereignty of the imagination.


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