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Talk Story with Daniel Finchum

Daniel Finchum has been artistic his whole life, but it wasn’t until two and a half years ago that he found his niche: wet plate photography.

Invented in the 1850s, the collodion wet plate process requires photographs to be coated, exposed and developed in a dark room, as well as a few other steps.

With millions of people taking photos with their smartphones daily, Finchum is among 2,000 people in the world who practice this style of photography.

Since the art takes a sensitive eye, patience, skill and time, the Kapaa resident honed his skills for an entire year before he started shooting photos.

“I do two schools of photography: I do digital and art and landscape pieces, which I had a show about two years now,” he said. “Since then, I’ve been doing the old school and focusing on the people of Kauai. I kind of go back and forth, but right now I go forth on this.”

On Jan. 21, Finchum will present 244 pieces of his work in the exhibition “Kama‘aina Soul — Anthology” at Kukui Grove Center in the Kauai Society of Artists Gallery.

Tell me about this show.

It’s all black and white, of course, because it’s done with original recipes from the 1850s. I’m using original lenses from that period. I’ve basically started soliciting on the Facebook page called Kauai Arts and Media page to get models to work with me.

Some people had actually heard about this, but they just thought it’d be fun to participate. It sorta just grew from there. That’s why my body of work got so huge. I’d study it for a full year before I even made my first image. Each image takes about 20-30 minutes to make. This is very old school, very slow, tactile.

It’s raw; it’s troubleshooting. Anything can go wrong with the process because you’re working with chemicals, environment and all that. Even people, when they move, because it’s long exposure.

Each session takes about four to five hours and we may only get two to three pictures from it. The models seem to love it. From there it grew and other people contacted me. Before I knew it, I had 70 people that I photographed multiple times because I use them in different pieces.

I’m calling the show “Kama‘aina Soul” because a lot of people when they see the pieces they think, “It’s like they’re looking into my soul.” I’ve heard that many, many times. I’m calling it an anthology, too, because it’s a collection of stories told through their eyes or through our culture here on Kauai. I use them as models to pose in certain ways to speak about the history or culture or just living in Hawaii. Certain things are important to us like family.

I’ve been here for almost 36 years and I’ve seen how Kauai has changed over years. It kind of concerns me. Some of my pieces speak to that, but in a really beautiful, sometimes humorous, sometimes sarcastic way.

That’s just me as an artist showing my feelings through my work.

It took me awhile to get to that point. I first started doing portrait work, but as I got more and more comfortable with the process, it freed me up to be more creative and think more how I can speak through my art now. The last half year has been more than kind of work.

After this show, I’ll be opening myself up to commission work. I don’t need to make money at this. It’s just my passion. I got a great federal job. I work like a fireman. I work one 24-hour shift and am off two days, so I get a chance to do all this work.

I’ve been passionately working on this for the past two and a half years, but only a year and half of shooting. I spent a full year teaching myself the process: finding the equipment, figuring out ways to get the chemicals here … because it’s expensive.

My lenses, I had to search all over the world for them. My camera was custom made for me in Poland. This is not something you can pick up and start like a phone. This is a real commitment, but I have followers all over the world now that follow my work now and I’ve had people who have told me who have been doing this for years they’re quite impressed how fast I picked it up. I have to remind them I spent a year teaching myself, researching it and resourcing it.

What have you learned from your subjects after shooting them?

That’s been the biggest reward — working with people. When you’re working with people, that’s a whole another dimension.

What brought me to do this was I watched a documentary on Billy the Kid. And they had found the tintype — how they used to make (photos) on tin. I do mine on glass. I saw the way it looked and I was in a restaurant about a week later and I saw people coming and going. Shame on me. I’ve been here for so long and only now I’ve noticed how diverse the people are. I made that connection to photograph them in a unique way — in a way that no one was doing it.

From there, I started doing the research. The process of getting to meet the people and learning about them, you meet all kinds of people in this process. The common thread among all of them are they are proud of who they are: as Portuguese, Japanese, Hawaiian, certain haoles. I’m trying to focus on a diversity of people here, not just Hawaiians.

A lot people think I’m just focusing on Hawaiians. A lot of times they’re harder to ask because they don’t want to be exploited, but I do have quite a few Hawaiians in my work.

I’m trying to present it in a meaningful way where it’s not the typical portrait photography. I don’t have my subjects smile. One, it’s a nod to the period. In the 1850s and 1860s, that’s when photography was in the bloom. People approached it very seriously. It was like getting your portrait done in a painting. You only had one chance in your life and it costs a lot of money. It’s also very intriguing to the viewer. If you’re smiling, you’re showing your teeth and giving away too much too soon. I want you to look at my soul but not everything. I want to keep some of it a mystery. I’d like to do that with my work and present it that way. That’s the aesthetic I’m trying to create.

As a result, what it does is allows you as viewer to come into his eyes now and look into his being — his personality. He’s not hiding anything, really. You would think by not smiling he’s hiding something. In reality, it’s bringing in more. That’s what I love about the work.

I made a whole lot of new friends in the process.

Are all your subjects from Kauai?

All of them but some of the Hewa people. I did a live event. I started just taking pictures near my booth for free in exchange I could use them in my show and they get free prints when I do the work as a thank you.

The Hewa people are all from Hawaii but not all of them are from Kauai.

What have you learned from using that kind of equipment?

You learn that you gotta be patient. I tell people who are interested in this process to be prepared to bang your head against the wall. Every shoot, regardless of the situation, becomes a troubleshooting session. There’s a thousand variables that can go wrong in the session. Any of my sitters, any of them can tell you a story about what went wrong in the shoot.

I never claimed to be a master of this process, but I’m getting to the point now where my workflow is much more controlled and I’m getting better results because I know how to use the light and I think that’s my advantage.

I don’t mean to speak highly of my work, but people who’ve seen my work tell me — and they know wet plate — it’s some of the best they’ve seen.

It’s encouraging. Some of those comments spur me on to keep making the work. I initially planned to show 40 to 50 pieces, but the gallery wasn’t freed up until January. I need the space and it’s cheaper rent. I just kept shooting and now have 240 pieces. I keep telling everybody, “You’re gonna be in a show.” I’m glad I can actually have all these people. We’re gonna have a VIP showing just for them.

What was your first experience with wet plate? Did that hook you?

If you look at my video, I’m working on these trays and an image is coming into view when you put it into fix, which is the last chemical. That step there is the step that most people that do wet plate — there’s only 2,000 people around the world that do this — that’s the part you realize this is magical. It’s really addictive and I have an apprentice now. She’s been working with me for over a year. She started as a model and she did some assisting then I finally prompted her to apprentice about four months ago.

I tell her, “Why do you want to do this?” She goes, “I just love doing this.” It’s tactile. It’s a handcrafted image, so it’s not instant. It slows you down and makes you think. You have to approach every photograph like it’s the only one you’re going to take. You take your time, pose your subjects. I actually have an interview with every one of them before I shoot them to disclose what wet plate is, what they’re getting themselves into and then hopefully get some idea of what we want to shoot.

A lot of times those ideas come from the interview. I may have an idea already that I’m looking for a specific type of person.

What was the first picture you developed?

The very first picture I did of a person was of my neighbor’s daughter. They lived above me. She always came down into my work studio area. She wanted to help. So I said, “Sit down. Let’s see if this works.” When I took the picture of her, I couldn’t believe it. It was forming, but it was a lot of mistakes on the plate. It fogged over a little bit. It’s a very mysterious looking piece. I want to print that for my show to show how far I’ve come since then.

When was that?

That was probably late August of 2015. To produce this body of work this fast in a short amount of time is what’s impressing some of the best wet plate (photographers) in the world. They haven’t seen all my work yet. I had even one person from Europe willing to fly here for me to teach them my workflow. That speaks a lot about my work. Half the job about doing this work is educating people. They don’t realize special this process is and how difficult it is to master. I hate talking about myself, but I would much rather just do the art.

Two got accepted into Contemporary Photography in Hawaii in competition. This one won two of the top prizes. That was curated by the Contemporary Museum of Arts in Honolulu’s curator and by some people from the University of Hawaii. When I went to the show in Oahu, a couple of people didn’t know anyone was doing this. I got their attention.

I’ve only released four or five pieces. I have a gallery in Koloa that represents me.

How much does it sell for?

Right now, I do limited editions of 50 and they’re selling for $450. I only get half and half that goes into the art because it’s so expensive.

What do you do for a living?

I work for the federal government. I help with the radar in Kokee — the one that controls aircraft.

Where are you from originally?

I grew up in Michigan. From second grade, I always thought this is where I’d live because my teacher went to Hawaii and came back with this little luau in the classroom, and I was always fascinated — not realizing I would actually come. I had an opportunity when I was 19 to come out and work in some summer camps and I just stayed. I fell in love here.

It was like I was meant to be here. I worked with mostly locals and I used to teach school for seven years. I took the federal job and I’ve been doing that for almost 25 years. And I’ve been doing art for three and a half years. And wet plate a year and a half of shooting.

I’m 55 now. I’ll be 56 in May. A lot of people are inspired by my story because they realize it’s never too late to gain a passion for something. Hopefully, I have a lot of years ahead of me. I’ve always wanted to be an artist. I just never found a real niche. This is different. It’s like a hook that doesn’t release me yet. I’ll probably do this for quite awhile longer.

To me, it’s more about to get people to remember where they came from — their simple past — not only as a person but also as a culture, as an island, as a state. I’m telling stories of the complexities of life through the eyes of the child because sometimes I think it can be more poignantly said through their eyes.

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