Text by Kinah Baguan; Photos courtesy of art/n23
Against the tide of perfection and eye-popping colors made possible by digital photography, many contemporary photographers have looked to the aesthetic of the past. A Paris-based Filipino photographer Ding Gerrous embraces memory and nostalgia from the soft warmth of sepia-toned print to the darkroom mishaps and light spots. His artisanal way of photography called wet plate collodion employs a labor-intensive technique in which produced images are cast on recuperated glass or metal plates. Because it’s an outdated process way back in the 1850s, he was forced to play with limited resources, particularly of window glass panes of the old buildings and a wooden French tailboard camera. Ding had specifically looked at the glass as something fragile at the same time durable, making his images last for centuries. But Ding Gerrous’ works are twofold. Glass portraits convey a rhetorical view on the fragility of the human spirit, the mind, and the body.
Moving to Paris backgrounds his career as an artist where he internally struggled in finding a niche amid the proliferation of digital photography in the early 2000s. It has also thrown into question the very self-worth of many photographers just like him whose identities were mired in the exclusivity of the analog process. Then sometime in 2007, his encounter with a vast collection of photographs at the Musée D’ Orsay renewed his interest to explore an alternative historical process, particularly of the pictorialist era. He was so moved and inspired that he plunged directly through the works of Niepsce to Nadar, Demachy to Desderi, Puyo, and Poitevin. Under the mentorship of an American wet plater named Quinn Jacobson, it led to the renaissance of the technique.
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Making his way back home, he recently held a special exhibition organized by Art/N23. Binhi revisits still life studies and features three ambrotypes a clenched fist breaking away from a nest of rice (Aklaspalay, 2021), a severed hand propping up a nail (Pako’t Palay, 2021), and a rice stalk for a grave marker (Alaypalay, 2021). A common element of rice, a staple food among the Filipino, embarks a narrative relating to our history and culture. “I’ve always been drawn to find what we humans share on a communal and personal level,” he says. “Whether it be struggles, conflicts, joy, pain, past, present, future — themes that one can contemplate, explore and discover that despite the seemingly infinite amount of possible correlationships they all form part of human experience”.
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In a closer reading, Ding’s archaic way of photography now seems to be re-emerging in fine art explicitly as a response to the digital process, countering digital speed, ease, and excess with deliberation, tactical-utility, and a renewed exclusivity nearly eradicated by the digital manifestation of the medium. As digital and mobile photography has become an essential linchpin in the photographic discourse, Susan Sontag’s assertion that photography maintains a western middle-class perspective that insists upon a sustained look downward is still substantiated by a systemic narrative framed by media outlets that dominate the photographic discourse. Though the yoke of media framing has not yet loosened documentary photography, the nature of the photographic rhetoric has certainly begun to sidestep the formerly narrow vernacular.