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Alchemy Sessions | Jenny Sampson

ASPHALTUM GRIT OF SKATERS

vertramp, berkeley, 2017

Jenny Sampson seamlessly melds the worlds of photography and alchemy through her art. With a degree in Psychobiology from Pitzer College and a career as a professional chef and caterer, Sampson is skilled in the art of mixing as a means of creation. This is most notably seen in her distinctive photography technique.




Abstaining from digital photography and transitioning away from film, Sampson utilizes a photographic process called wet plate collodion, which originated in the mid-19th century. To make a tintype, a metal plate with a glossy dark surface (historically asphaltum on a thin iron plate) is coated with collodion and submerged in a silver nitrate bath to sensitize it to light. The plate is exposed, immediately processed and while the plate is in the fixer, the image begins to materialize. Due to the nature of hand-poured chemistry, each plate is completely unique to the next. In an increasingly digital age, Jenny Sampson’s unique photography process allows us to visualize a space where alchemy and photography can exist in tandem. Sampson uses the wet plate process for many of her varying projects, including her extensive catalog of still lives as well as one of her photographs included in the Rolls and Tubes Collective, of which she is a founding member, but notably in her two books Skaters and Skater Girls published by Daylight Books.



OUT OF THE COMFORT ZONE: Portraits

First picking up a camera in the 6th grade, Sampson is a lifelong photographer. Working with film at the start and transitioning years later to wet plate collodion, Sampson’s approach to her work has also adapted and changed over time. When I spoke to Sampson, she described a nervousness that would arise when she would photograph people. The feeling of approaching and asking to be let into someone’s space to photograph them was understandably intimidating. While daunting, Sampson found that the wet plate process distracted her from her anxieties enough so that she could make portraits of strangers. This discovery happened to occur at the very first skate park where she made tintypes; she ended up making eight portraits that day. Sampson was met with a soft kindness when she approached skaters and she began to seek out different parks and skate spaces. The end result is a large collection of truly intimate and mesmerizing portraits of the skaters she came in contact with.

Town Park, Oakland; Lucia (Lucy); (c) Norma Ibarra, 2019


ACTIVISM THROUGH INTIMACY: The Misconception of Skaters


In 2017, the portraits made during her many expeditions to skateparks were immortalized on the pages of her first book Skaters. With her uniquely tactile photo process translating seamlessly to paper, the portraits in Skaters act as a form of activism through the care and attention she gives to her subjects. Sampson’s process takes patience to execute, both on the part of the photographer and the subject. With exposure times that can often last up to 15 seconds and an onsite development process, cooperation and trust are critical in creating the final piece. In this respect, Sampson’s tender care for her subjects allows for a truly honest portrayal of a population that has been historically sidelined and misrepresented. These intimate and humanizing portraits offer a counternarrative to the societal imagination of what a skater is. Steering away from the stereotypes thrust upon them, these photographs conjure the true democratic and cooperative spirit of skate.

*scroll to see all images

SISTERHOOD: Skater Girls


When I sat down and spoke with Sampson, she explained that throughout her time in skateparks she often saw very few, if any, women skating. This is not to say they didn’t exist, just that discovering where they were skating was more challenging. Women have always been and will continue to be an integral part of the skate community and Sampson was determined to represent them in her work. She contacted different skate organizations like Skate Like a Girl and Exposure and found skate events for women and non-binary folks which gave her the opportunity to photograph the skaters, many of whom show up on the pages of her second book, Skater Girls. This entry into Sampson’s collection of published books allows the viewer to see, very tangibly, the intense pride and confidence of these skaters who have been systematically cast aside from the dominant narrative of skate culture.


Once again, Sampson’s work with the skate community acts as a form of activism. By offering a visual representation of these women, the narrative begins to shift its focus and a group that has been historically shaded is pushed into the forefront. Through these portraits, you are offered a window into the shared community and camaraderie in the spaces Sampson visited. This allows for a vision into what the future of skate could look like. While it is important to understand the history of women and non-binary people in skate and to work towards dismantling the limited spaces, Sampson stated that the people on the pages of her book were much less concerned about the yesterday, and more focused on the now and tomorrow.

Lucy looking at herself (lucia, oakland, 2019) at Sampson’s Skater Girls book launch, October 2020, Box Car Flower Farm, West Oakland (c) Sharon Wickham, 2020


GET OUT YOUR OUIJA BOARD

Wet Plate Collodion Process by Jenny Sampson


This early photographic process was announced to the world in 1851, with credit going to Frederick Scott Archer, only two decades after the first photograph, the daguerreotype. Creating a tintype—or ambrotype, the glass equivalent—involves hand-coating a metal plate that has a dark lacquer or asphaltum surface with salted collodion and submerging it in a silver nitrate solution, thereby sensitizing it to sunlight; then the plate is loaded into a film holder, exposed in the view camera, developed immediately following the exposure, and finally washed, fixed, and washed again to complete the process. In order for this undertaking to be successful, the plate must remain wet, hence the “wet plate” collodion.


The end result is the unique image on a metal plate. What looks like a positive image is actually a negative. (For those of you familiar with “wet” photography, the plate is the equivalent of the film.) This negative lays on a dark surface (dark lacquer or asphaltum), which, in turn, renders it into a positive—the perceivable image.


Oh, but if it were all so simple. Not only does the plate need to remain wet, the chemistry and climate must also be agreeable. If it is too hot, too cold, too humid, too dry or too windy, too dusty, the chemistry may become ornery. Stubborn chemistry can sometimes be remedied by using alternative recipes or simply by adding a little more ethanol, ether, silver, or perhaps sugar or honey to change the ratios of the collodion and developer. Sometimes it just won’t work. Get out the Ouija board.


The process and the qualities of the wet plate collodion tintype are magical, resulting in a breathtaking, beautiful, unique, and sometimes haunting photograph.


Wyeth Anderson is a withitgirl writer and contributor. She was raised in the Bay Area. She recently graduated from the University of Oregon in Sociology and Film studies. Wyeth enjoys thrifting, writing, and discovering new music bands. Instagram


Additional Information

Skater Girls & Skater books purchase

Jenny's Website

Jenny's Sampson Photography Instagram + Jenny’s Personal Instagram

Rolls & Tubes Collective Instagram

Norma Ibarra Photography Instagram

Sharon Wickham Photography Instagram

Cover Photo: Jenny Sampson in front of Bolinas Skate Park, (2016) by David Grossman

Box Car Flower Farm Instagram

Publisher Daylight Books Website Instagram


Articles and Podcasts links

Daylight Article

Sunny16 Podcast | Underexposed: Jenny Sampson | May 6, 2021

More Press can be found on Jenny's website

All photos (c) jenny sampson

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