The melting haze of a photograph is only part of its illusory magic. Film develops as light marks itself along the strapped metal, usually over a tiny space not fit for even the smallest rabbit. For Walter Hugo, a 30-year-old artist from London, the medium offers more for debate when performed in a bigger hat he builds from scratch. By combining modern chemistry, the antique ambrotype, and a bit of Warholian wit, Hugo captures his subjects without containers, freeing them in ghostly reproductions that are as mysterious as they are scientific. Made with exposure times lasting longer than a few blinks, Hugo’s glass portraits picture the architectural depth of inhabited eyes, enlivening façade by tearing down its walls.
We catch up with the art scientist, off his Reflecting The Bright Lights series, before he steps back into his lab to conjure up a new body of work, another beautiful Frankenstein.
In a video of your latest series, you’re pictured making an ambrotype: wetting a glass plate that creates a giant film, which is then placed into an even larger camera. Why go through all that work?
I see photography as a medium that can be changed. Generally, photography is made up of a picture and the content of that picture. I don’t see it as fixed. For me, the medium of photography is the content itself; the two work harmoniously.
Is it because you make the work as much about the process as its final image?
I built a giant camera because I didn’t think the original size would do the portrait justice. In this size, there’s a one-to-one ratio. In the flesh, they’re life-size. These fierce characters come in, and you wouldn’t believe that they’re portraits come out totally softened. The long exposure time and process shows you the soul. Back in the day, people used to believe that. The eyes become mellow like almost seeing through a window. They can’t hold their façades up any longer.
How is it different from modern photography?
Digital photography is everywhere. It’s instantaneous. We’re in the most photographed period of time in history. I’m a fan of technology, but I think the market is saturated. People have become almost completely throwaway about everyday photography. I’d like to adapt the new technology with the old in something that takes time, precision, and craftsmanship.
In modern photography, the old cliché has been to find a group of people that no one’s ever seen before, like drug dealers in a Brazilian prison, that gives that shock element. After that, what do you do next? Build a camera. Photograph a Brazilian prisoner. Finish it on a piece of aluminum from the prison. Well, of course, that’s what I would do.
What attracted you to the ambrotype portrait?
I found one at Spitalfields in east London, where they have this flea market every Thursday. The ambrotypes are tiny; the original ones are a couple of inches and fit into lockets. When I saw the ambrotype, I thought it would be a really good format to capture cool kids of the moment. Like how Andy Warhol had done with his screen prints of friends, I could do it with the musicians, actors, and other people I get drunk with.
Why dig up the past to picture the present?
When Kodak brought out the penny postcard in America a hundred years ago, there was this same reaction. The photographers, who were photography artists at that time, reacted by making romantic images more like paintings in the face of the mass production of photography. That’s happening now. There’s still a trend towards the image itself, but also in the way it’s shown and the way it is made. I don’t think photography is a one trick pony. We should be able to manipulate it, like how they did with oil painting.
When did you start making art?
I’ve been probably doing it since I was sixteen. I always took things apart. I didn’t realize I was a street artist. I just did it. In my early street art, I would collect old bits of furniture. In London, we have what are called council estates, which are like the projects. Kids hang out there on these little low-rise walls, everywhere you go, and I eventually realized that each one of them had their own wall they’d sit on. So, I built a sculpture on it made out of furniture with color and seating. I think that was my first proper piece.
I didn’t study art. I studied the sciences. But, I knew I didn’t want to be a scientist. The first year I was in university, I began assisting fashion photographers. At that point, I thought fashion photography was really creative. I would see these amazing spreads, sets built, lighting, and so much color; it was fantastic. That’s what I wanted to do. But, I was also studying geology and physics, which made for a weird juxtaposition, I suppose.
From outdoor installations to indoor rooms of photography. Could space generally be a theme in your work?
When I was young, I was given a camera, a simple point-and-shoot Olympus, as a present. Those early photographs were slightly surreal, considering I was 12. They weren’t of people, which is what I’m concerned with now. They were the tops of lampposts and sides of buildings in LA. I was fascinated by Man Ray, who used solarization. He hadn’t invented it, but no one else had highlighted it before.
Now, I’m used to making pieces on the street that demand people to physically stop. A couple of years ago, I did photographic painting on street walls in London. People had never seen that before. The graffiti boys would go up to it and feel it and say, ‘How has he done this?’
What are you working on next?
I’m working on a new series called Rude Boys. I grew up in a project and now I’m going back. I never actually captured the people I hung around with as a boy. So I’m finding all these young kids with gold teeth and tattoos, building pop up cameras, and shooting them on giant sheets of tin, gilding their teeth. When it was first invented, ambrotypes also pictured people from China. But, you hardly ever saw African people portrayed. I'm documenting that and modern street culture as well. I'm not being political or satirical. I just think aesthetic beauty should be strong enough.