Sometimes, the old methods work best for certain occasions. This is what the legendary portrait artist Chuck Close proved when he created these beautiful photographic portraits using the more than 150 year old process of the daguerreotype.
Chuck Close (whose self-portrait you can find above) is better known for his photo-realistic portrait paintings that usually measure over twice the height of a man. He later created abstract like portraits by using wood blocks or by individually painting cells arranged in a grid which later on become the foundation for a larger work of art. Viewed at a distance, these portraits don't look any different from your usual paintings, but viewed up close, you can see the individual cells (or pixels if you will) that make up the picture.
Mr. Close later teamed up with Jerry Spagnoli, a modern day expert of the daguerreotype process. Together, they began a photographic project creating portraits of artist-friends.
All of the wonderful photographs you see here were made by Mr. Close using a daguerreotype camera. The daguerreotype, named after its chief developer Louis J.M. Daguerre, is one of the oldest methods of photography. In fact, its formal unveiling in 1839 (which also coincided with the other photographic process called calotype) marked the year photography was invented.
The beauty of a daguerreotype image comes at a price as the process of creating just one photograph involves painstaking preparation and oftentimes several minutes of exposure. The process also required various chemicals that can be hazardous to the photographer and environment if not properly handled.
In order to create a daguerreotype, one must first polish the silver coated plate (which is the direct positive of the image to be exposed) to a flawless mirror finish. It is then sensitized with iodine and bromine vapors. After exposing the plate i.e. taking the photograph for several seconds or minutes (depending on the light levels and chemicals used), the plate is then developed using mercury fumes.
The image is then fixed with one of different solutions available including potassium cyanide, sodium thiosulfate, ammonium thiosulfate and even sodium chloride (table salt, which was the first method of fixing). The plate is then gilded, which adds a layer of gold to strengthen and improve the durability of the photograph. You can find out more about the whole process here and here.
Because the usual exposure for this old art form takes around a couple of minutes, Mr. Close used six flash strobes to make the exposure almost instantaneous. According to him, "Your eyes slam shut so fast, it feels like somebody stuck an ice pick into the middle of your eye. If we don't have the shields, you can smell your hair and your face burning."
The majority of the portraits you see here are that of Mr. Close's artist friends. They include (starting from above) social commentary artist Lorna Simpson, minimalist composer Philip Glass, photographer Andres Serrano (of Piss Christ fame), photographer Cindy Sherman (who is her own model for her conceptual images), portrait photographer Lyle Ashton Harris and below, mixed media artist Ellen Gallagher and artist and sculptor Kiki Smith.
Mr. Close photographed around 20 of his friends which were included in his recent publication Chuck Close: A Couple of Ways of Doing Something.
All of the preparation put into these images is quite apparent, although some praise (or criticism) should be given to the daguerreotype itself; the plates are so sensitive that both the subject's best features and imperfections are heightened.
In Mr. Close's hands, these facial flaws take a step back as the subject's character comes out. These faces emerge from the darkness, with the very narrow depth-of-field focused on the eyes. As a whole, these floating heads look like they were meticulously hewn from solid rock, polished metal or hard wood. Both the age and agelessness of the photographic process become part of the portrait.
Aside from his artist friends, Mr. Close also photographed other subjects, most notable among them being the celebrity Brad Pitt. The photographs were done for W Magazine, with Mr. Pitt specifically asking for Mr. Close to do the pictures. He isn't the "fair-haired young boy" anymore, but the portrait still works quite well.
Mr. Close also did a few full body portraits, most famous among them being the exquisite studies of another celebrity, supermodel Kate Moss. All of these photographs were later made into brilliant massive tapestries with the help of Donald Farnsworth of Magnolia Editions.
Overall, all of these portraits are excellent and Mr. Close is to be commended. These images are truly a testament not only to his talent, but also to his perseverance on focusing mostly on portraits considering that he has face blindness, something you wouldn't have guessed when you look at the quality of his work.
Most of these excellent daguerreotype photographs by Chuck Close are available in the beautifully made book Chuck Close: A Couple of Ways of Doing Something, a book that is truly a work of art in itself. You can also get to know more about Mr. Close through Chuck Close: Life and Chuck Close: Work. The documentary Chuck Close is also a good place to start.