On Christmas last year, Palmira Miro Gutierrez transported their elaborate vintage camera setup to some train tracks in Tucson.
It’s not something they typically do — transporting a large and heavy vintage camera — but they were feeling inspired to capture images of the local industrial scene just as they did many years ago in one (yes, one) of their hometowns.
When they first picked up a camera over 20 years ago in Detroit, Michigan, Gutierrez took pictures of everything you could think of — family, friends and surroundings. But even then, Gutierrez knew they never wanted to be the photographer who took photos of “ducks in a pond” or “rose gardens in your grandmother’s backyard,” they said.
Instead, Gutierrez wanted to take photos that captured reality, all while highlighting its raw beauty.
“I would look around and it'd be abandoned buildings and cars that had been set on fire,” they said. “I just took pictures of what I knew. … I was going into abandoned train stations and taking pictures of all the graffiti. That was my reality.”
Fast forward nearly 25 years and on a typical weekend, you’ll now find Gutierrez in their converted carport-turned-sunroom-turned-home-photography-studio in midtown Tucson, where they practice the art of wet-plate collodion photography.
The historical photographic practice was first utilized in the mid-1800s and is recognizable today by its monochromatic finish, imperfect edges and often serious expressions in portraits.
The process of creating these vintage-looking photographs takes equal parts creativity, science and patience.
The process begins by pouring collodion, a syrup-like liquid consisting of nitrocellulose in ether and alcohol, on a tin plate. Gutierrez uses tin for plating trophies and will manually cut the correct size from a sheet of the material.
After coating the tin plate, it goes into a silver bath for a few minutes where it will become light sensitive. After pulling the plate out of the bath, it's placed into a film holder that's been retrofitted for the tin. It's then placed inside the camera and exposed for around three seconds. This part of the process is when you take the photograph, Gutierrez says.
After going to the darkroom, the plate is removed from the camera, covered with a developer and gently moved around. Once an image begins to appear, Gutierrez gently washes the developer off with water.
“Then you use a fixer, which is like that famous footage of people swirling the bath around and then the image (appears). And after that, just wash it in water to stop that process,” Gutierrez said. “Even then, the plate is wet, so it's very sensitive. You have to varnish it to seal it and protect it from any elements once it leaves your studio.”
Gutierrez describes the process of wet-plate collodion photography as a rush — and a little stressful.
“It feels very intense,” they said. “It feels euphoric, like love or something. I'm just focused on them (the subject). And it's just me and them. And then that wears off and I'm like, ‘OK, what did I actually do?’ You're kinda like, ‘Oh my God, I did it. What just happened?’ As a nonprofessional, I think that's impressive.”
Gutierrez became eager to learn about this form of photography after they had a wet-plate portrait taken of them. That portrait led Gutierrez to join the Western Photographic Historical Society, where they learned how to take wet-plate collodion photos with the group. Since joining last April, Gutierrez has taken around 100 photos using the photographic technique with cameras from the early 1900s and 1950s.
As a lifelong art and photo enthusiast, Gutierrez had been stuck in a creative rut and was happy to pick up a new photography skill.
“I was actually really sad that I had not pursued it (photography),” they said. “When I hit my late 30s, I was mourning. I'm like, ‘Why didn’t I do it? What was wrong with me?’ … And then digital came out and I wasn't interested. In my bones, I couldn’t get into it. When I tried to do it, I would challenge myself and be like, ‘You're only allowed to take one picture. And if you get it, you get it. If you don't, you don't,’ just to challenge myself.”
Originally, Gutierrez wanted to just take landscape photos but enjoyed taking wet-plate photos of their friends so much that they decided to primarily focus on portraiture — but not the traditional portrait that may immediately come to mind, with its stiff poses and watercolor backdrops.
“I wanted to be able to tell a story because that's who I am. I tell stories and I share stories, so that's what I want when I photograph my friends,” Gutierrez said. “I want them to see them how I see them, and even just the magical aspect of who they really are and how I see them. And that's been the rewarding part.”
Prior to each two-hour session, Gutierrez puts together a mood board filled with inspiration, themes and positions that best represent the subject and honor their culture. Unlike other tin-type photo services that often only do 1-3 tins, Gutierrez does seven. Photo sessions start at $125 and customers receive digital files of the photos as well.
“I like this approach because it's the slowest approach and nothing is in a hurry,” Gutierrez said of the whole process. “It feels right. It just feels like second nature.”
'It just feels like something so concrete, something so tangible'
Gutierrez grew up in two places — Detroit, Michigan and Jalisco, Mexico — often spending days at a time driving with relatives between the two places.
“Four days with six people in a (Mercury) Grand Marquis,” Gutierrez said, laughing as they recounted the journey.
Both of these places had a profound impact on Gutierrez's upbringing and the way they created art.
As a child, Gutierrez remembers lying on their stomach, drawing while their mom would look over and say, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to draw like that.”
Growing up, Gutierrez used art as a way to cope with everyday life, including being bullied at school.
Art became a huge part of their life, thanks to their first art mentor Marcia Freedman, who eventually helped display Gutierrez’s art in a group show at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
However, it wasn’t until Gutierrez was a teenager when they began to delve into photography, after receiving their first camera from Detroit photographer Michelle Andonian.
After growing up in a very traditional and religious Mexican household, Gutierrez, who is queer, decided to head west at 17.
“The rule was, no one leaves the house till they get married,” Gutierrez said. “And I was like, ‘I'm gonna be here forever.’ In our culture, that means you have to take care of your parents if you're the last one out. You have to take care of them forever.”
When Gutierrez arrived in Tucson over 20 years ago, they had issues with substance abuse but wanted to get clean. So, Gutierrez found work, began therapy and started to spend time with organizations like BICAS which provided safe and sober environments.
Since calling Tucson home, Gutierrez has found community, inspiration and even more ways to create and share their art including a show in April that showcases their wet-plate photos.
“It’s going to be about intimacy and sensuality,” they said. “So, it's a lot of my friends and there’s going to be some nudes. And also there's a homage to people and who they are and removing that weird stigma about sexuality. Being queer, I'm proud of it and it’s the most certain thing in my life.”
But Gutierrez isn’t stopping with the show in April. They plan to apply for residencies and grants, and continue to find inspiration throughout the desert and community while creating wet-plate photos.
“I think it has a historical bond because of the style of the camera and the method and the result,” Gutierrez said. “It feels like something special is happening. I think we all felt that in the '80s with Polaroids because it was so instant and it was just so vintage-looking. But with this one not being on paper but on tin, it just feels like something so concrete, something so tangible.”