MAKERS: Steven Mastroianni, Photographer
When I asked Cleveland photographer Steven Mastroianni why he still makes photographs the traditional way, his answer was all about silver. For Mastroianni, it’s that moment when the image miraculously appears on the paper that counts. Alone in his darkroom, under the amber glow of the safelight, light causes a chemical reaction on the paper that produces a thin layer of silver – seemingly from nothing. And this was the way photographs were made for most of the twentieth-century – this labor-intensive, far from perfect, stinky, and time-consuming process requires much more thought and skill than simply pressing a button. Because there isn’t much “process” involved with digital photography, the focus inevitably turns to the finished product. But for Mastroianni, the finished image isn’t nearly as important to him as the process, a method he explores using a likewise traditional subject matter, portraiture.
I answered a call via social media to sit for a portrait in his studio, and used the occasion to do some thinking about photography in the 21st century. It was around the end of the century that digital photography began to grow in prominence, and it has since become the standard platform for most photographers. But it’s not just commercial photographers who use digital equipment to say, shoot weddings, the art world, too, has widely embraced artists who work digitally. Inkjet, C-prints, and laser-cut images mounted to aluminum or wood, are common fodder in galleries and museums today. All of these thoughts were bouncing around my head as I carefully posed in his studio, bathed in sunlight, patiently waiting for that “click” sound (yes, his cameras actually have moving parts that make noise).
It’s amazing how quickly I forgot what it feels like to wait to see your picture. No phone app filters, no instant gratification, no idea of how it would turn out, a feeling that made me surprisingly uneasy. What if they all look bad? It normally takes me at least six shots to get a good selfie, and then I can edit it of course. Taking photographs the traditional way is a bit like taking an educated guess at what the final image will look like, but that’s how photography always was until recently. What we’ve lost with convenience is skill, and most importantly, patience. As Mastroianni explains:
“Sitting for the view camera is a commitment, both for the subject and the photographer. The camera itself is large and unwieldily, requiring a tripod and space to set it up. The process of creating the exposure is as far from point and shoot as one can get; light is metered, focus is set, film is loaded, and shutter is released. The exposures tend to be long, often several seconds, and the depth of field can be very shallow, often a few inches, so the subject must be perfectly still for the entire process. The materials—film, paper, chemistry—have become more rare and more expensive in the past decade, making every shot count. But it’s the slow, deliberate process which delivers the intense and decisive images.”
Patience is a virtue that Mastroianni must have in spades, as his practice is nothing short of meticulous. And while it seems like there may be a bit of nostalgia at work here, his approach and method truly borders on the scientific. That isn’t to say that he doesn’t appreciate the sensory pleasure of the end product, there is definitely some romance involved, but the focus of his work seems to be on pronounced craftsmanship rather than beauty.
Mastroianni is certainly not the only contemporary photographer that utilizes traditional methods and analog equipment. Here in Cleveland photographer Greg Martin lugs giant glass plates around in the field to capture his wet-plate collodion images, much like photographers did in the late nineteenth-century. And recently photographer Keliy Anderson-Staley shot 150 tintype portraits for LAND Studios’ InterUrban project with the RTA. Daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes, glass-plate negatives, cyanotypes, all the old methods of photography are being utilized by contemporary photographers, many of which locally are affiliated with the Cleveland Print Room, a non-profit community darkroom, educational center, studio workspace, and photographic gallery near Cleveland State University. CPR offers a place to process 20th century emulsion-based film and other analog photography formats collectively with others who share a passion for these kind of photographic arts.
Using traditional gelatin silver film and paper, a process that has changed little over the last 100 years, Mastroianni’s portraits are part of an ongoing series he calls “Silverscuro” (“scuro” means “dark” in Italian). Each session has a strict set of parameters, utilizes the same equipment, the same lighting, and the same processing. For my sitting, his fifth Silverscuro session, he used both a medium format camera and a 4×5, but only allowed natural light in the studio. All of his subjects were recruited via social media, with no expectations or screening. And like his previous sessions, he plans on showing the work in his Tremont studio, with the hopes of ultimately putting the entire series into a single volume for publication.
During my session, we discussed the artistic and aesthetic qualities of his silver portraits – in an attempt to locate what differentiates them from digital. When I look at his photographs carefully, I discern a richness, a lush, almost velvety texture; but there’s also an emotional weight to them, an uncanny quality that is difficult to describe. I found myself wondering, if I put two identical portraits side by side, one made the traditional way, and the other using digital processes and filters – would I be able to tell which was which? An interesting hypothetical, but I am still convinced that there is a far richer emotional resonance in his silver portraits than could ever be achieved by digital – but then again, do I know that for sure?
When you see one of Mastroianni’s portraits, what you are looking at is actual silver – bits of silver attached to a piece of paper by chemicals. As reductive as that might sound, it’s true. But what I see in them is much harder to measure – I see the personality of the sitter, which has traditionally been a goal of portrait photographers, even in the nineteenth century. The immediacy of Mastroianni’s work calls Julia Margaret Cameron to mind, the British amateur photographer who made portraits that were rather unconventional in their intimacy. Her subjects included some of the greatest thinkers of the time: Thomas Carlyle, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Sir John Herschel, and Charles Darwin to name a few. Cameron’s approach was to try to capture the inner spirit of her sitters: “When I have had such men before my camera my whole soul has endeavored to do its duty towards them in recording faithfully the greatness of the inner as well as the features of the outer man.”
I think that Mastroianni has also captured the spirit of his sitters in his dark silver portraits, whether it was his intention or not. And when I finally got to see my own portrait (on a screen unfortunately, just as you are seeing it here), I was stunned. During the shoot I felt awkward, like I was trying too hard, or not enough – but nothing of this ended up in the finished photograph. Instead, I truly see myself in it, in a way that I haven’t in a long time – stripped down, no frills, baring it all. But this is just a jpg, of course. I wonder how I will feel when I see the object in real life – every wrinkle, each strand of hair, all composed of tiny bits of velvety silver.
— Steven Mastroianni’s studio is located at 2687 W 14th Street in Tremont. For an excellent behind-the-scenes look into his process, take a look at this video made by his daughter.