IN THE STUDIO WITH GUSTAVO CASTILLA & ANNA YARROW

Photographers have a reputation for hiding behind the lens, preferring not to be photographed themselves, but nothing could be further from the truth in the new collaboration between Gustavo Castilla, a Santa Fe tintype photographer, and Anna Yarrow, a fellow Santa Fe artist and photographer (who also happens to be my sister). 

It's early October in Santa Fe. The cottonwoods are beginning to turn, but the afternoons are still warm enough to be comfortably naked outdoors. Anna has invited me to help stage a nude piece in Gustavo's backyard for their upcoming photography exhibit (ANNA, opening reception November 4th at  El Zaguan, 545 Canyon Road in Santa Fe). 

In addition to staging the props, my second job is to observe the process itself: the back and forth of collaboration, the heft and weight of the old camera, the continuous shuffle between Gustavo's backyard and the dark room lined with chemicals. 

Coating the plate

Coating the plate

Gustavo's dark room

Gustavo's dark room

I know virtually nothing about how a tintype camera works (or a digital camera, for that matter). I do know that the method dates from the mid 1800's and each shot takes an eternity to prepare and process. It is laborious and intensive and the image only appears after a series of alchemical stages. 

Gustavo takes me into his dark room where he explains how he coats a certain metal plate with a certain chemical for a certain length of time before sliding it into the camera for a single shot. 

One shot.

It's not even a "shot” in the modern sense. The photographer simply removes the lens cap for an intuitive number of seconds, letting the light flood in to form a negative on the coated plate. 

The degree of labor required might make an ordinary photographer cautious, but Gustavo doesn't exude caution—he exudes energy. He swoops around the yard like a tornado, stringing rope, slinging cloth, flying in and out of the house. I nervously watch as he hoists the bulky camera onto a tripod vaulted 15 feet into the air (aided by his partner Julia who seems steady in more ways than one).

When Anna and I sit for a test plate he hardly warns us before removing the lens cap. In the dark room the plate reveals two strange-eyed women. Anna's head is slightly cropped. We look nothing alike. 

But as Anna and I laugh, Gustavo is already coating the next plate, "Let's do another one." I like that the demands of the tintype have not made him stingy or safe. Chaos is part of the process. 

Anna balances the chaos with an energy that is outwardly calm, but no less intense. She saves her outward expression for the 3-5 seconds when Gustavo uncaps the lens. She knows the emotion she wants to express, and she controls the story she tells with her body. It's moving to watch.

And though she is both subject and title of the show, she too wields the power of the camera. The gaze shifts fluidly from eye to eye. 

When Gustavo hands me a stretch of royal blue lace and asks me to sit in front of the camera, Anna picks up her own camera and the shutter starts to click. She sticks her lens under the tintype cloth and laughs, “You’re upside down!”

Gustavo returns to the yard with a fresh plate. He smooths a flyaway hair, and tells me to relax. Lens cap off. Four seconds. No click. 

In the kitchen earlier tintypes of Anna are spread across the kitchen counter where Julia is cutting potatoes for dinner. The images are otherworldly. There is an extra depth to them, almost as if the tintype captures subtle layers of light, air, pupil, and skin that the digital camera rushes past.

Time too: the image is a composite of several seconds of breathing, blinking, and feeling, which might explain why Anna's intensity shimmers on the surface of the plate. 

The version of my sister on the plates is different--more intimate--than the living body right next to me in Gustavo and Julia's kitchen. 

Intensive labor is the exchange price for transferring a bit of human essence onto a sheet of metal. The best things are rarely easy.   


VISIT THE SHOW: Opening reception for ANNA, Friday, November 4th, 5PM-8PM, at the Historic Santa Fe Foundation, 545 Canyon Road.

Show runs through November 28th.

PORTRAITS: All photographs in this essay were by Anna Yarrow or Gustavo Castilla. Please contact them for more information about prints and portrait sessions.