By Renee Choi
Francesco Mastalia, a New York based photographer, released his third book Yoga The Secret of Life, an homage of 108 portraits of great yoga teachers and gurus practicing today. The images are developed using wet plate collodion, a photographic process from the 19th century. Francesco had his camera specifically re-created to produce these images. We sat down with him to discuss photography, process and creativity. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
Q: What I’m interested in with a lot of photographers is how you got into photography?
I knew at an early age I wanted to be a photographer. When I was finishing high school deciding what I was going to do with my life, I thought, why should I work for a living when I can just take pictures? And that is how I’ve spent my life. I just loved photography from the first time I had a camera and I started to go to some of the schools in New York. I went to the School of Visual Arts. I went to F.I.T., I went to The New School. When I got out of school, I started to work as an assistant to photographers, with almost 30 different photographers in New York City: portrait , fashion, architectural, food photographers. I really saw a full gamut of different types of photography and it helped me figure out what kind of photography I wanted to do. I always just loved photographing people, that interaction. I spent a number of years working with these photographers traveling around the world with them, and got to see the big advertising shoots. It was an incredible time for photography then. Obviously, it was all film-based. I’ve always loved old photography and traditional photography and working in the dark room. I started to work on my own and all the work that I got was all people-based and portraits at the time.
Q: Have you ever done anything inanimate or landscapes ?
It’s all people-based. I find with landscapes and objects I don’t feel anything coming back at me. So, I love the interaction and trying to capture part of someone’s soul in a picture. I’m sure that some people see that within a landscape or within other types of photography, within a still life, but not for me.
Q: How did you get interested in the process of wet collodion and why did you actually start with that process photographing farmers in your second book Organic Farmers & Chefs of the Hudson Valley?
It was at a time when digital photography was really starting to kick in and I think what happened with digital technology and just technology in general is that it’s making our lives easier. You no longer need to use a dark room, you no longer need to work with chemicals. But for me, the dark room was a space where I was being a photographer. It is this sacred space, with the dim lighting and the smell of chemicals. I did not want to give that up.
When I started researching the old processes, with the collodion process you use a dark room. You bring a portable dark room which is something that is very rewarding for me. The end result is paramount but how I got there is just as important. I find with digital technology, it’s become a push-button process. With the collodion process, every step is done by hand, where I’m making my own film, making my own emulsion mix, and my own developer using silver nitrate. I’m transporting this piece of glass with chemicals through its process. You’re connected to every part of it. That’s something that I really love.
Q: Why didn’t you just stay with film? Do you still shoot film?
No, I stopped shooting film. That’s a good question, I’m not sure why I didn’t stay with film. I love the imagery. But I think what’s so great about the collodion process, is it’s a very mysterious, alluring process, and there’s a big unknown space which just keeps making itself available to you. To me photography has always been that — a process of exploration and discovery. I find with the digital process it’s very precise because it’s a computer. With the collodion process it’s not possible to create the same image twice. When I take a photograph I’m not freezing time — what I’m doing is capturing the energy of light. Light is energy, light is nature’s way of moving energy through space. It’s the flow of the universe. It’s really the energy which resides in our soul.
Q: And literally capturing light energy because the exposure at times are longer as well.
I like working with long exposure time because, again, not only am I capturing energy, but I’m capturing the flow of time. What I tell the yogis is, what is going to appear on this glass plate is what happens between you and I and what the universe decides to give us. And that’s always a surprise. There’s no way to pre-visualize the movement of the wind, or how the temperature and the humidity is going to affect the chemicals. It’s always a surprise whenever I see the images.
Q: How many takes would you do per yogi?
Each individual photograph takes approximately 10 minutes. So within one hour I would say four to six individual plates. And it’s a process where there is no light meter to determine the exposure. The temperature has a big effect on it. The process is sensitive to ultraviolet light, and as humans we can’t see ultraviolet light, so that’s something else that’s interesting, again. All of these things come into play when working. The first one or two plates is just trying to hone in on the exposure. I was asked a question once in an interview: before you get to the perfect one do you shoot any bad ones? And I said, well I never really strive for perfect because I don’t know how to define perfect. And when I shoot a plate it gives me information for the next one, so it’s never really a bad plate. It’s all done based on how I feel and not how I think. When photographing subjects I tell them the same thing: Just do what you feel. We don’t have to be too intellectual, too analytical about how we’re approaching this.
Q: That’s so interesting, because you look at the book there are yogis that are doing physical asana but then there are others that are seated or in meditation. If you approached them with “do what you feel,” then it’s interesting what they chose to do.
That’s correct. I was really inspired by the physical aspect of yoga. I mean, seeing these yogis in these extraordinary postures. I was seeing the strength and the grace of the human body, and this is what I wanted to capture. I thought I was going to photograph 100 or so yogis in asanas. And early on there was someone who I was photographing, who had been practicing since the 1970s, who said to me, “I don’t want to be in a yoga asana,” he said. “I prefer to be in a meditation pose.” I said fine. I photographed a few more people and someone else said the same thing. What I started to do was, I started talking, “Think of this as a self-portrait because I want to produce a picture or create a picture that represents you and your practice.” It started to be that they would choose what they wanted to do.
Q: And there are also some portraits in there as well.
I said, you know, we’ve all seen Dharma Mittra stand on his head. But who gets to look into the eyes of the master?
Q: That’s amazing. It’s true.
When he showed up I said, “This is going to be the easiest photo shoot you’ve ever done.” I said, “All I want to do is photograph your eyes, so all you have to do is sit in this chair and we’ll be good to go.” That’s what I wanted with that photograph, to just be able to look into the eyes of the master. One of the most powerful things that we can do is look into the eyes of another human being, right? When you look into the eyes you just feel something that penetrates from your soul, your heart; that’s really powerful. I think that happens with those photographs.
I always like to tell people “just pick one topic and photograph it for a year.” Because I think if you make it to the end of the first year, you start to realize, “I’m just getting started.”
Q: That’s like yoga, too.
Now that I practice yoga, and I think I say the same thing that I think everyone says once they start — I wish I would’ve started sooner.
Q: And then you also realize it’s a never-ending process. It just goes on.
It’s exploration and discovery, which is what art is about, what photography has always been for me, and that’s something I want to just keep finding out more about the world, and finding out more about myself. As much as I learn about what I’m photographing, I learn about myself, too. That’s what draws me to photography.
I saw that my photography changed when it all came from my heart, from my soul. That is the most truthful place that we can come from, and I try to take that approach in life, too. I don’t do what I think, I do what I feel. That’s what these yogis demonstrate when they always talk about being in the moment and being one. The way I define yoga is the union of life, which means being in the moment and being at one, which is the truth of our life. I think that is the secret to life there. Stop using this (points to head). This messes us up. So, this is it (puts hands over heart). That’s why our hands always come here because they know this is the place of truth. I think that’s the source of truth right there.