ASHTON, Robert (Melbourne, 1950 - )
Ambrotype, 415 x 335 mm (plate), framed (585 x 485 mm). A rare large format ambrotype taken by the accomplished photographer.
I have been photographing the bush around my home for over 40 years, always looking for new ways to engage with its arbitrary and indiscriminate manifestations. For this series of photographs I built an ultra large format camera to make wetplate collodion images on glass plates. The complex process of making each plate balances a very considered and meticulous preparation with the serendipity of the moment and the material. In these images the bush becomes a stage. The backdrop isolates, reveals, conceals and juxtaposes to create a formal visual tension with the surrounding random chaos. Twenty 200×250 mm ambrotypes (glass plate wet collodion positives). Each glass plate is direct from camera and unique.
Robert Ashton 2020
Robert Ashton – Bush Theatre
A scree of prickly moses and wattle. The bright rhythms of dessicated gumleaves. Thick angahook bark upstanding, furrowed both by time and design. A silver sky, a sepia ground. This is not the past. This is time past and time future gathered into the gelatinous space of the present.
Branches in the bell jar of a hushed afternoon room. The light diffuse, soft as marsupial fur. A tree in miniature, interior cousin of the open forest. A sideboard as a stage, the bush as theatre.
There is a silence in photography that suits the bush of Victoria’s southwest coast. It is both a silence of memory and of forgetting, of location and disorientation. It is weightier than the sound of painting, etching, drawing, or writing. It is the silence of the single moment after the song, the still-point of simultaneous capture and release.
Robert Ashton’s art has always betrayed a philosophical respect for process as a thing-in-itself, process as an indispensable solution in which the series of still-points that make up the matter of life is revealed. His work represents an inversion of mere scenery, its true provenance lying in the symbiosis of process and moment: one serving the other, becoming a portal, a decidedly Australian portal, into the inescapable kinship of nature and culture.
In Ashton’s Bush Theatresilence is profound, substantial. It is also as delicate as the process through which the images are made. That the artist handbuilt his own ultra-large format cameras to realise his vision on wet collodion glass plates indicates both a ruthless capability and an abiding interest in the lineage of spontaneity.
This is key to the photographic art of course, this question of time. Whereas 19th century Australian bush photographers such as JW Lindt and Nicholas Caire were excited by crafting the often awkward novelty of a raw colonial situation, Ashton works in an era not of limitation but of choice, and with the resonance of aftermath. As such he moves past the literal to symbolise the cultural landscape in his own eerily compelling interpretations. The bandaged trees of Wadawurrung country, the discarded fetishes of capitalism. Such images embody a deliberately orchestrated aesthetic but one that is also somehow endemic to the mysteries of deep time landscape. This is juxtaposition getting at the truth of our contemporaneity, the scale of our natural entanglements, our hybrid climate, part given, part made.
That these are also images from a bush home tells us something of how place can be a thing as strange as the self. What is projected here, through the ocean of trees, onto hoisted scrims, onto glass plates, are the latest renditions from a lifetime of looking, thinking, and unthinking.
The ambrotype : a 19th-century photographic process
The ambrotype – from the Greek ambrotos, “immortal” – is created using the wet plate collodion process developed by the English inventor Frederick Scott Archer, which came into vogue in Europe and North America from around 1854 as a cheaper alternative to the daguerreotype. A glass plate covered with a thin layer of collodion, then dipped in a silver nitrate solution, is exposed to the subject while still wet, then developed and fixed. When the reverse of this negative image is coated with a dark emulsion such as varnish or paint, the resulting image appears as a positive. The process requires the expertise and experience of a professional photographer. Every ambrotype is unique.