A Life for Analog Photography

Last year I took part in a “Curating Photography” workshop with Kristin Dittrich at the Shift School in Dresden. The best besides the lively and ambitious teacher, the noble photo books and the Indian food were the other participants. Rarely have I met so many great and interesting people in just one weekend. Two of them, a married couple, radiated an atmosphere of photo enthusiasm and rock’n’roll right from the start: Claus-Peter, called CP for short by everyone, and Nicole Malek. This text, however, is only about the lady of the house, the princess of analogue photography.

The artist Nicole Malek mostly devotes her works to deceleration. She refuses the ever more colorful, ever larger and ever louder Instagram art and searches for quieter motifs that leave time for muse, time to breathe out and reflect. With this drive, it is only logical that she never photographs with a digital camera, but always analogously. In the house of my two friends, all kinds of cameras can be found: old and new, large, small and tiny, anonymous and name-bearing. For some of these cameras Nicole even makes the films herself because they’re either very hard to get or very expensive – or both.

Malek doesn’t send the often unusual formats to the photo studio, but develops, exposes and prints the photos herself. And when I say “print”, I don’t mean printing on a laser or inkjet printer, no, this step is also done by hand. This means that her photographic art takes up most of her life and her environment, because in addition to her studio she also uses the kitchen, bathroom and living area as a place to practice her art. The passion with which the artist creates each and every print is shown in the finished works. Malek herself describes her fascination with the following words:

For me, the chemical process, the smell of fixers on my hands, and the limited nature of images mean “real” photography. The possibility to fail, to make mistakes and that the results are never predictable make the pictures so valuable to me.

The motifs are people and animals that have a rather quiet and slow, or better decelerated and calmed, character. They are scenes without a reference partner within the picture. The dialogue takes place between the sitter and the viewer. She portrays friends and relatives, people who are important to her, animals and objects that fascinate her because of something special – and this intimacy touches the viewer. With her art, Malek creates images of a return to the important things in life.

Friendship, love and happiness

My friend and I were recently lucky enough to look over the shoulder of the photo artist and learn the procedure of callitypy with her. For a long time we stood in one of her two dark rooms and learned that photography does not only mean optics and aesthetics, but also physics and chemistry. Because I knew photography from the other side – the critical, interpretive, and comparative art historian’s expectation – it was like entering my very own, fascinating, but also dark and in summer very warm world.

Together with Malek I even made my own Kallitypie after a negative with very photogenic snails that she had taken. First a sheet of paper is coated with a chemical substance, then exposed together with the negative and finally the sheet takes different baths in developer liquid, in water, in toner, in fixer and in citric acid, which I had to think about for a short time during a cure. And voilĂ , a real “Nicole Iris” was born.

Malek is very active, a driven person in search of motifs worthwhile for her, which she can capture and interpret for herself, acquire. This is how the idea for a street photography project on London’s streets came about: Equipped with a Minox Spycam, Malek roams the cosmopolitan city, always in search of a moment that moves her. It is often only a fraction of a second in which the situations she captures have endured, and yet there is a tranquillity resonating in them that does not give us a glimpse of this transience. Even more: she captivates this moment, with all its feelings and its complexity, in her works for eternity.

Here’s a rief digression: the same Minox Malek used in London has a guest role in the film “James Bond 007 – Her Majesty’s Secret Service” from 1963. Unfortunately, the neat spy holds the little shots upside down and takes photographs of his own eye at most.

Does that do him any good?

However, Malek does not leave the resulting photographs in their raw state, but makes important changes and additions to them. Colourful wool seams trace the basic lines of the motif and the artist’s thoughts. In addition, there are fragments of text from books, magazines or typewritten lines, or drawings and prints that offer a further level of interpretation. Malek thus appropriates these works, as it were, and makes them very personal and unique.

Since I also name the most important things in my life in order to show my attachment to them – my car, for example, is called Marie – I can understand very well that Malek also names her favourite cameras after human models. An old, relatively easy to transport large format camera from the 19th century, for example, she calls Fiona.

Especially impressive are her motifs in collodion wet plate technique, invented in 1851 by Frederick Scott Archer and Gustave Le Gray, on handmade black glass. Left as negatives, they become unique specimens – just as the persons depicted are unique and valuable to the artist. Her camera, also from the 19th century, is affectionately called Albert. The motifs are presented through this technique as if under a thin film of water, which allows an in-depth look at the picture. A level behind the visible is suggested: a truth beneath the surface of the visible. Thus the viewer is brought to look into himself and asked about his own place in life.

In contrast to Fiona, Albert is very tall and heavy, higher than I am when set up and in any case heavier than Pia, and can only be used on site in Maleks studio. When creating photo plates with this device, the photographer is also required to make great physical effort. Only the wooden cassettes with the glass plates are a challenge. In addition there is the susceptibility of the technique to failure, which often requires numerous repetitions. For example, at least a day has passed before one or two wet plates have been successful and the dainty artist is completely exhausted – exhausted but happy.