Interview x Annalisa Ubendacht
Meet Lenny Kaholo, a local Wetplate Collodion photographer who’s bringing it back to the old school – way back – to the 1880’s. Lenny’s work bridges the gap between past and present, old and new; through one of the most complicated, volatile, and badass photography techniques we’ve ever heard of. Lenny’s tintypes are created using a massive wooden camera and an antique brass lens – then developed using a bunch of lethal chemicals. Getting a single shot can take over 20 minutes from start to finish, while his subject holds perfectly still the entire time. Once he’s done, there’s a pretty high chance the photo won’t even turn out. Wetplate Collodion is a pain in the ass to pull off, which is why Lenny is one of the few photographers in Hawai’i doing it. I hung with Lenny (and his cat Chowdah) at his home studio to get the low down.
How did you get into photography in the first place?
I moved around a lot as a kid and I didn’t always like it. Just like any other kid I wanted stability. You know, family and friends around me. I was moving around so much that photography ended up becoming my source of stability; something to hold onto. It was a way of remembering the people I had met and would always have to say goodbye to.
As a kid I always had this film camera hanging around my neck. I guess I just brought it everywhere with me. I don’t know who developed the film for me but somebody did and I’ve always been grateful for that.
Why are you stoked on Wetplate Collodion photography?
Because I can’t perfect it. Because everything I thought I knew about photography was just thrown out when I discovered it. I’ve tried a lot of other photography like kallitypes, you know, all the main ones. Then with wetplate all of a sudden I didn’t know anything. It forced me to understand what really comes down to the basic beginnings of photography.
I mean this stuff came out around the time film still had not been invented. Everyone was still dragging around these enormous dark rooms with all these chemicals and these giant cameras in order to take pictures. That really fascinated me because this kind of photography is so user dependent. Everything you do and everything you touch in the process makes a mark on the image. If you pour the collodion [chemicals] on the plate and somehow miss a spot on the image, that’s going to transfer through the different stages, developing a totally unique aesthetic.
This genre of photography is so obscure. I mean, it’s been obsolete since the 1880’s. Why get into it now?
I love that I’m creating a truly handcrafted piece. In kind of a cliche way I’m defining and capturing a true moment in time that can never be reproduced. Since there’s no negative, it shoots straight to a positive. I think that adds a lot of value to my work that’s pretty much irreplaceable. Yeah I could copy it. I could scan it and print it, but it won’t be on a piece of metal created by the same chemicals with the same tones.
Don’t get me wrong, this stuff is incredibly fucking frustrating. The chemistry is always changing, it’s very volatile. Whenever you shoot you have to take into account all these other factors that in modern photography you wouldn’t have to worry about. The temperature of the air, outside humidity…then you have to worry about really slow ISO up to like -1 or 0.25. And you’re looking at like 10 second exposures which causes all these other problems like blurring, ghosting, mis focus, all that stuff.
But sometimes you want all those imperfections in your images right?
Yeah, and that’s the thing. At one point I was getting way too focused on perfection. Like brah, I want an image with no streaks no spots and perfect sharpness. Those are all ideal things to have in photography. Then I started to think, what defines a perfect photo? Maybe a photo can just be beautiful in it’s imperfect, blurry, spotted self. So I eventually really started to appreciate the aesthetics of the medium. Honestly, some days you’re just gunna have crap, but that’s just part of it.
Tell us about the chemistry involved in developing your shots in the dark room.
The shit I’m using will get you on the NSA watch list. People get really sketched out when they see me buy these chemicals. I use cyanide, which is super lethal even in the smallest doses. I had to take a couple of certification courses to be able to buy it and use it. I also use ether, silver nitrate, and different light sensitive salts. Then all of that gets mixed and used to develop the images.
Kind of Breaking Bad status right?
Haha pretty much. Aw man, my poor neighbors. I really freaked them out one time. When I first started doing wetplate I got hurt surfing and tore my MCL. I had to have surgery on my knee and I was stuck at home. So I started growing out this beard, and the neighbors had just moved in. I’ve got this beard, a black grow tent which I bought at a hydroponic store that I use as a dark room, and I have all these beakers and mystery chemicals laying around. The neighbors are seeing all this and thinking “man this braddah is no good”. Haha. I had to explain myself quickly.
What’s the most challenging aspect of Wetplate Collodion?
Ha. Finding a lens that I don’t have to sell a kidney for.
The cost of doing what I do is a huge barrier to entry for most people. So is the time it takes to perfect it. You can’t just buy a camera and shoot. The odds are stacked against you and there’s a steep learning curve.
You really want to think about each individual shot before you take it. There’s a certain level of mindfulness and patience that it requires. You really have to think like “should I take the photo now, or should I wait until that cloud moves so the lighting is just right?” You’re going to be staring at that image for a while so if you’re not happy with it, it’s gunna destroy your soul.
Do you have anything against digital?
I don’t have anything against digital, it just has a place. Honestly, I don’t know how to be as creative as I want to with digital. Some people are amazingly creative with it, and I think that’s great.
Where is your photography going? Any projects you’re working on right now?
Right now I’m working on this climate change project – a project kuleana of sorts and one that is very important to me. I’m going to beaches on O’ahu like Hau’ula and La’ie to take photos of local kanaka using the ocean: fishing, swimming, surfing, jumping off the rocks. I’m using these photos for a series to bring awareness to rising sea levels.
It’s crazy to think about. In 70 some years these places that I’m shooting may no longer exist. They’ll be wiped out due to global warming.
I’m shooting an 8×10 camera and enlarging the images in the darkroom to cover a wall. The idea is that when someone steps into my gallery they will actually feel like they’re stepping into the picture. I want to create an instantaneous emotional connection for local people. Like whoa, “I recognize that bench under the tree where my great grandfather use to sit and talk story, and hey that’s my cousin’s place over there.” I want people to think “okay, I want to help do something about this.” That’s the hard part about activism because people tend to think that an issue [like global warming] is just too big for any one person to make a difference. This project is my way of changing that.
Do you have a favorite image?
I have yet to create it. If I was just like “this is the shit. I nailed it. It’s a masterpiece” then I’d never grow.
Follow @l_enny_k on Instagram and check out lennykaholo.com to see more of his work.
ALSO CHECK OUT THIS VIDEO ON LENNY’S WORK X SLIPPERY SALTWATER CHRONICLES
text x Annalisa Unbedacht