Darkroom stories

Treasuring time

In the calotype story of Wlodek Witek unexpected boys are becoming the part of a landscape.

“I have a few stories, – tells Wlodek Witek, calotypist, paper and photo conservator at the National Library of Norway. – But this one is one of my favorite.

Vietnam journey with a calotype mission

For a period of three days when travelling in 2017 in Vietnam I had no chance to make a calotype exposure because of the journey. When we arrived at the archipelago emerging from the Ha Long Bay I saw what I wanted to capture in a calotype and hoped for an opportunity.

Ha Long Bay on the map of Vietnam
Ha Long Bay on the map of Vietnam, photo fromhttps://www.vacationstogo.com/cruise_port/Hanoi_(Halong_Bay)__Vietnam.cfm

“The daylight ended without a chance to even think of setting up a tripod”

We arrived by a minibus from Hanoi. Then we flew on a small airplane above the thousand tall islands before embarking on a French copy of a steamboat. The original SS Esmaraude sunk after a few years as a steamer. It was a tourist vessel, many of them French photographers, 100 years ago. It was an unforgettable afternoon on board cruising between the tiny islands covered with lush foliage. The daylight ended without a chance to even think of setting up a tripod. Moreover, the vessel was in constant motion not allowing me to capture anything else than the boat itself, on the deck. Not what I had in mind at all.

“Carrying a tripod and a camera I embarked on a small dinghy vessel…”

After a short breakfast the next day we stopped to visit a huge cave going through one of the islands. Here was the first chance which I would not let go, may be the only chance in Ha Long Bay. Not knowing what to expect on the island I grabbed my camera and embarked on a small dinghy carrying passengers as a shuttle vessel.

Vietnam, Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay, Vietnam, photo from http://www.vietnam-guide.com/ha-long-bay/attractions.htm

“There was time for one exposure only…”

As soon as I set my feet on firm ground I made a plan to speed-walk through the cave in order to save time for a preparation of an exposure on the other side of the cave. It was a morning without wind, sky was covered by a high hanging layer of thin clouds, in other words the calotyping conditions were perfect.

Done as planned I emerged from the cave in record time and quickly found a spot from which to photograph. There, I noticed a rocky edge just over the shore. It would serve as a dark and textured foreground. Then, further away lay the calm bay, then a row of ball-like buoys like black pearls on a string limiting the beach perimeter. Further still the moored tourist boats and farthest away the unmistakable rough shapes of the islands as a background. There was time for one exposure only (not an unusual condition when travelling) therefore, I started to set up my tripod without a delay. Judging the movement of whatever was on the water is rather challenging if at all possible.

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam (north), calotype Wlodek Witek
Ha Long Bay, Vietnam (North), calotype ©Wlodek Witek, 2017

That is part of the unpredictable effect and a surprise awaiting only in the darkroom and to be uncovered some days after homecoming. So the Thornton & Pickard mahogany camera was set up within a few minutes: bellows pulled out, camera leveled correctly, lens mounted, the image composed, brass knobs firmly tightened for a sharp image, calculations made for an exposure with a lens stopped at f/8.

“I uncovered the lens to start the exposure…”

Last check under the black hood if all is well and the wooden plate holder to start the exposure. Time check, lift the ground glass, slide inn a plate holder, carefully pull out the dark slide to open it inside the camera, stretch out look again at the scene… Then uncover the lens cap to start the exposure of 8 min. Observing the movement of the anchored ships I made some predictions if the shapes would be recognizable since the movement of currents made the vessels swing constantly, all in their own rhythm according to some laws of physics.

Immersed in these thoughts I watched the time and suddenly realized that more and more people were coming out of the cave and populated the small area outside. As if out of nowhere four Danish youngsters all in white T-shirts appeared. Clearly relieved to be out of the cave again they chose to sit in front of my camera, at some distance on the rocky foreground, their feet dangling a few meters above the water.

Vietnam- Halong Bay in the morning, salt print Wlodek Witek
Vietnam- Halong Bay in the morning, salt print ©Wlodek Witek, 2017

“Their appearance was early in the exposure. So if boys stayed in one place for another 7 minutes they would become as immortal as the rock they sat on”

Wlodek Witek

“The boys would become as immortal as the rock they sat on…”

These well-defined human shapes started to play a new role without realizing what they did. Now, I could ask them to move and stop my exposure, but I chose not to do it. Instead I let life play a new role uncontrolled, make a mark in the well structured composition for a capture. Their appearance was early in the exposure. So if boys stayed in one place for another 7 minutes they would become as immortal as the rock they sat on. I thought it was a good idea to let it happen that way. I guessed that the composition was so solid that it would not suffer. Perhaps the inclusion would make the image more interesting, and for me definitely more thrilling to follow up this unexpected participation of young humans?

Fragment of a video complied for the ‘Travels in Time’ exhibition (Poland 2018, Norway 2019). Music created by Len and production is by Zara. “I have been video-selfing most of my calotypes when travelling, – tells Wlodek, – preserving image, colour and sound like a time capsule, a sample to be used creatively at a later time.”

Today I would say it is my favorite of the eight calotypes I brought from Vietnam. The story is part of that image”.

More calotypes from Wlodek Witek’s trip to Vietnam are here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/51129607@N07/albums/72157677761884084