Interview: Ellie Young on the alternative craft

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The Carbon Copy ©Ellie Young

Photography can be a social activity, whether it be capturing a family portrait or a landscape that can be shared; a still memory that somehow reanimates whenever you look at it. Today, we can take billions of pictures with our smartphones and share it in an instant. The photograph becomes a piece of data, easily deleted as it is forgettable.

One thing we can’t forget is the history of the photographic process spanning over 150 years. In attempting to preserve a moment and make it commercially available, the work of pioneers such as Louis Daguerre, James Ambrose, and Adolphe-Alexandre Martin lead to the development of Daguerrotype, Ambrotype and Tintype. Each process aimed to make photography easily accessible to people, with stunning results – heirlooms that can still be viewed in museums and homes.

There are many photographers who are keeping these alternative processes alive, and it’s not just a matter of ‘doing’ but a way of preserving the technical process. Many artists are using this technical process to create unique pieces of work and continuing the legacy of fine art photography.

One such individual is Ellie Young, instigator in this movement and founder of Gold Street Studios in Victoria. The studio has been the centre of alternative photographic print processes in Australia and New Zealand since 1999, providing workshops and resources to artists by teaching the proper techniques for these 19th Century processes.

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Bike ©Ellie Young

Working in the darkroom can be a lonely experience as printer/photographers play both artist and scientist – controlling and limiting outside factors while encouraging creativity. Ellie has created a space where artists can flourish and get some advice from masters and other photographers.

We’re very lucky to have Ellie teach some exclusive classes in Ambrotype and Tintype processes this June at Blanco Negro. We caught up with Ellie to learn more about her experience.

Every photographer has a story of what/who motivated them to pick up the camera. For Ellie it’s genetic – “It has always been part of my life – as a child my father was always with a camera documenting us as children – processing and printing in the pantry while I sat and watched.”

You’d think that with so many years of experience she would be satisfied with her technical knowledge. But what lies beneath is a true artist. When asked what drives hers, she answers with a question: “Can I make the photograph better, or different and better?” This has become the mantra in all her work. When asked which work is she most proud of she replies with a “Hmmm”. An artist is never sated.

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Ambrotype Teapot ©Ellie Young

Drawing from greats such as Edward Steichen, Paul Strand, and Frank Eugene, this is the kind of aesthetic Ellie strives to maintain through her own work. But it’s not all black and white to Ellie when it comes down to contemporary creation. It is important to do the processes correctly but it’s also important to use the resources we have today – “A constant change with the marriage of digital and analogue has helped in creativity… The inkjet negative has opened the world to embracing the hand craft of the photographic print – there are no barriers – you can shoot digital analogue – even on your iPhone and create a photograph that is made by your hand”.

In returning to traditional techniques, Ellie doesn’t have one favourite – she says, “[It] depends on the day – four colour carbon – salt printing, Copper plate photogravure, four colour Gum bichromate – all have a special look and feel”. And yet, when it comes to choosing a camera, the Sinar 8×10 is a sure winner. It’s also no surprise that salt printing is one of her favourites, Ellie researched and wrote a whole book about it – “The Salt Print Manual”.

In 2000, she received the National Gallery of Victoria Trustee Award for her work in Gum Bichromate printing and her pieces are exhibited around the world. Teaching has been an important factor in her career. Gold Street Studios started with a few classes and now offer over forty different workshops in photographic process with some of the best professionals in the industry.

So why are historical processes such as Tintype and Ambrotype important? Ellie explains, “wet plate has a unique look due to the response to UV and blue light. It is extremely fine grain with an ISO around 1 or less. Light – and the unique way the light process responds – it is a total craft. The fact that large format cameras are used is great. It introduces people back to the basics of photography – instilling some foundations that are a great aid in other aspects of photography”.

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After working with international artists such as Jerry Spagnoli, Elizabeth Opalenik, and Mike Ware, Ellie insists that all the people she has taught have been interesting – “when you teach – you also learn”.

Ellie is among a very special kind of creative – a teacher, innovator and historian. She teaches us to slow down and appreciate our rich photographic history, the science, and how we can combine all this with some exciting developments in technology. A true artist will never be sated or satisfied with their work. But you can come close if we choose to learn and teach others.

Please joins us for special classes in Ambrotype and Tintype with Ellie Young at Blanco Negro. It is a privilege to have a master of this calibre in Sydney. Limited spaces available. For more information, head here.

Ellie Young is working on her current exhibition. For more info on Gold Street Studios head to the website.