Mason’s perfectly flawed photographs show off Alaska | Becoming Alaskan

Robert G. Mull

When he was a kid in the seventies, first experimenting with photography, Charles Mason found that mistakes he had made on film could produce fascinating results. “You always look at things that went wrong, to see if they’re interesting on their own,” he recalled. “Did the photo gods step in and give you something?”

For the works he has on display this month at Well Street Art Co., Mason found himself back in this place. The show originated in a 2018 artist in residence stint at Denali National Park, where he employed the 19th century collodion process to take pictures and develop them on the spot, with serendipity and chemical interactions having as much to do with the end result of each image as Mason’s framing.

“It was the first practical way to shoot in the field easily and come up with reproducible pictures and make big pictures,” Mason explained. The collodion process, also described as “wet plate,” involves coating a glass plate with liquified collodion for use as a negative. He said there’s about a ten minute window for preparing a plate, putting it in the camera, taking the picture, then developing it before the collodion dries. “You have to carry a darkroom with you,” he said, “Which is what I did.”

In this instance, Mason used the darkroom built into his Westfalia van. “Interestingly, you see the image immediately,” he said. “You only develop it for a minute or two.” He was hoping for at best three good photographs to come from the residency, but as the pictures emerged in his darkroom, his enthusiasm increased.

For Mason, the pictures evoked the early photography that was done with this process. They’re flawed by uneven chemical applications, by dust that collected on the plates after they were first treated, or by accidents like touching a glass surface and leaving a fingerprint. All of this interacted with the chemicals, adding colors to otherwise black and white images. When he scanned them into his computer he realized he had done something entirely new for him. “It’s another one of those photo gods reaching in and giving me a gift.”

Mason has lived in Fairbanks since 1984, when he took a photographer position with the New-Miner. He grew up in Georgia and Virginia, and with the support of his father, pursued an early interest in photography. By age 14 he was working as a stringer for his small town’s newspaper, a job he kept for ten years. “I was making $2.50 per published picture,” he said . “And when I left after I graduated college I was making $10 per published picture.”

Mason attended Washington and Lee University, where he earned a multi-disciplinary degree. The school didn’t offer photography, but he befriended Patrick Hinely, the university’s photographer, and spent three years learning from him. “I would call him my mentor,’ Mason said. “It was a whole new world. Better than a real education in many many ways.”

While still in school, Mason got an internship with the Roanoke Times. After graduation, he said, “I wanted to work at a newspaper. I saw that as the gateway job to being able to make my life with a camera.”

Mason and his then-wife wanted to go someplace adventurous, and when the offer came from the News-Miner, it fit the bill. In 1988, he was sent to photograph the famous Operation Breakthrough effort off of Point Barrow to rescue whales trapped in the pack ice. For this he won the Leica Oskar Barnack Award the following year, which raised his profile to the international level. Since then his work has appeared in publications globally. “The only magazine I haven’t been in is the one with the yellow borders,” he said laughing, referencing National Geographic.

Mason left Alaska long enough to earn his master’s degree from Illinois State University, then returned. In 1990 he joined the faculty at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Initially he was with the journalism department, but as the number of journalism majors declined, he expanded into the art department, where he was pivotal to the development of BFA and MFA degrees in photography.

Mason doesn’t consider himself an artist exactly, but grants that the work in his current show is his most artistic work yet. “I’ll never be a painter,” he said. “I have no hand-eye coordination. But these are the most painterly things I’ve ever done. But I did them chemically, and with photography. And random, I embrace the random.”

“I couldn’t have designed this picture the way it is in my head,” Mason said of the photo Denali and Reflection Pond. “It looks like I shot it through a champagne glass.” He added, “I have people look at this and they only see the bubbles at first. And then the mountain kind of forms behind them.”

On Ghosts of Wonder Lake, he set up his camera, then waited for tourists to arrive and opened the shutter for 45 seconds, capturing ghosty images of them. It looks like the 19th century, not the 21st.

“I think what makes the park interesting to me are the wetlands and the taiga and the spruce trees and the grasses around the wetlands,” Mason said of his choices for images. “And I’d like to have my own picture of Denali that’s not anybody else’s.”

Mason said the show has been invigorating from the initial planning all the way to the finished product. “When you’re a kid and you first develop your film, you’re just so excited to see it come out. These collodion pictures were like that for me. Every time, I just wanted to see the plate come up, see what I got. It’s always a surprise.”

“With collodion, you can’t make two pictures that are alike,” he concluded, “And that zeal, and that enthusiasm, coming back into my photography was incredible. That’s why I like the unpredictability of these. If I could control these perfectly, I wouldn’t do them.”

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