A Vintage-Style Photo Essay of Alternative American Communities

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Robyn Hasty hesitates to call herself a photographer, despite her medium. She’s a member of The Miss Rockaway Armada collective who traverses rivers on trash art-rafts, but lately she’s been traveling off-grid in an old Volkswagon hatchback. From the 9th Ward of New Orleans to the scrapyards in La Grange, Texas, Hasty has been searching for alternative communities that have survived the collapse of the American economy and taking their portraits with a vintage, DIY 1890s-era wet-plate Collodion photographic set up. Hasty has kindly shared her technique, inspirations and wanderlust with us. She talks to us about her ongoing series Homeland after the jump.

Rusty Lazer and Swoon, NOLA. Courtesy Robyn Hasty

The Art House, NOLA. Courtesy Robyn Hasty

What are some of the alternative communities you’ve visited?

New Orleans. You could say the entire 9th ward is an alternative community, but it’s infinitely more complex than that, an Urban Farm two miles out of downtown Austin that has been run by the same couple for 20 years — Boggy Creek Farm, a handful of people on the Couchsurfing community, which I think is an incredibly important cultural resource for finding community in places where you otherwise may not know where to find it, Asheville, North Carolina, which is another place that feels like a city-sized alternative community.

Courtesy Robyn Hasty

What draws you towards your medium?

I’ve always been fascinated with old Victorian tin-types. There’s something in the physical object that is magical. It could be the fineness of the detail, the beautiful range of tones, the way the silver shimmers slightly, the starry wet plate gaze that people seem to fall into on such long exposures, the visibility of the hand in the collodion and developer pours. For whatever reason, I believe this process is the most beautiful photographic process.

Abandoned Six Flags, New Orleans. Courtesy Robyn Hasty

What is your technique? What equipment do you use?

Wet-plate Collodion is the name of this technique, invented in 1851. Basically, it means that a plate of glass or tin is coated with collodion and silver nitrate, exposed to light, developed and fixed while the plate is wet — about a 15 minute window. All of the chemicals and most of this equipment has to be mixed or made by hand, or custom built. I use a large format view camera with a modified 8×10 film holder. The camera is a Kodak Eastman Empire State from 1896 and the lens is a more modern Rodenstock Sironar.

How long does it take?

The setup takes about 30 minutes. This includes unloading the equipment, setting up the portable dark box, mixing a few chemicals, putting everything in it’s place in the dark box, setting up the camera and subject. Making the plate takes about 5 minutes and the exposures are usually 2-10 seconds depending on light. One of the caveats of this process is that you need a lot of light in a specific UV range. I only shoot in natural light. It’s possible to shoot with a fluorescent light array in the studio, but they are expensive and right now, I don’t need to do that.

Photographer Tod Seelie in a scrapyard in La Grange, Texas. Courtesy Robyn Hasty

How do you travel?

I bought a car for this project. It’s kind of a necessity for a cross-country project. I heard about a few people who have wet-plate trailers on their bikes, which is a lovely idea and I wish that would work for me, but I would we worried about damaging equipment or chemicals in bad weather, and also the time it would take to travel would be so much longer. Zip cars worked fine at the beginning when I was just shooting in NYC, but for 15,000 miles of driving it’s not possible. Fortunately I was able to buy a VW TDI that gets 50mpg, all of my equipment fits perfectly in the back, so it’s probably the best solution.

I travel with a portable dark room, two milk crates of chemicals, my camera and a lovely Ries tripod, 10 lbs of sodium thiosulphate (fixer), distilled water, a backpack, a sleeping bag, road food, my computer and a flatbed scanner. Sometimes I have a passenger with me, to help with fuel and driving, but there were a few legs on the last trip when I drove alone.

Courtesy Robyn Hasty

How do you find your subjects?

I think there’s a feeling of respect that draws me to my subjects. That I think they are inspiring people, who have made difficult choices about how to live their life and have succeeded with those choices, that they are strong-willed and have a lot of integrity.

Angeliska. Courtesy Robyn Hasty

Argosy. Courtesy Robyn Hasty

We’re seeing familiar faces in these photographs. What draws people like you, Angeliska, Tod Seelie, Swoon, and the entire Miss Rockaway Armada to each other?

Like in any community, I think we understand what each of us is doing in some essential way. There’s also something inspiring and affirming to be around people who push you to grow, and the individuals who are most important in my life do that in unexpected ways.

Courtesy Robyn Hasty

Are you a nomad or are you headed somewhere?

I’m headed somewhere, but I don’t know where. I’m on the river, and letting it take me.