In oil: photographer looks at Gulf Spill

Phil Nesmith has a seemingly masochistic tendency to put himself in difficult situations for the sake of making art.

His latest exhibition, “Flow,” is a testament to this. Camping in a tent on the beach of Grande Isle, La., Nesmith braved the elements – which included temperatures over 100 degrees – to capture images of the Gulf Coast after the BP oil spill.

As if the heat and mosquitoes weren’t enough, Nesmith chose to use wet collodion plates to create his images. The old and painstaking process yielded an average of two images a day, and sometimes none at all. Using toxic chemicals, a portable darkroom and a camera that dates back to the mid-19th century, Nesmith truly had his work cut out for him.

Nesmith said it was the only way in his mind to document what was going on.

“I chose this process because of the physical environment’s impact on the image,” he said.

Wind, sand, dirt, heat and humidity all affected the way the images would appear once they dried on the glass plates. Even the intensity of the light could change the chemical reactions that produced an image. This interaction was crucial to Nesmith. “As a viewer, that’s as close as you can get to that actual event,” he said.

“I feel like there’s a lot more of me in the object,” he said on why he entrenches himself into his work. “I want the environment and the situation to impact me, because how can I talk about it and how can I make work about something I don’t know about?”

This need for understanding is a driving force behind Nesmith’s photography. After being introduced to photography in middle school, he seriously pursued it while in the Army.

“I was a paratrooper for almost nine years. jumping out of planes at 3 o’clock in the morning was normal. I would go home, meet up with friends, and they’d know what I do. I’d tell these stories and I realized that I wasn’t living a life that everyone understands or sees,” he said. “So, I started to pick the camera back up and photograph what my life was like.”

His experience in the Army led him to his first project, “My Baghdad,” in which he used glass plate images to document his experience working as a network engineer for the Department of Defense.

One could never tell all the hardships he endured for his work. The final images are beautiful, serene and quiet. Nesmith’s work blurs the line between fine art and photojournalism – capturing momentous events in this country’s history by creating images that require the viewer to linger and contemplate.

The sentiment behind Nesmith’s projects remains the same.

“It’s hard to convey to somebody really what it’s like without being there,” he said. “You can use words, you can use pictures, but really, none of it, none of it really gets close.”

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