France Scully Osterman

ROBERT | You jointly established Scully & Osterman Studio at your home in 1991, and you continue to run it. What was its role at the beginning, and has that role changed?

FRANCE | Mark and I first established the business before we were married, while living in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Scully & Osterman is a physical studio and our business, but also it is an idea. First and foremost, we established ourselves as artists and educators. In addition to creating and exhibiting our work and teaching, we also did a great deal of primary research, writing, publishing, and consultation on special projects.
When we moved from Pennsylvania to Rochester, New York, in 1999, the role of Scully & Osterman stayed the same in many ways, but our individual jobs became more defined. Mark became Process Historian at George Eastman House, and Scully & Osterman became my full time job. From 1999 to 2009, Mark’s job at the museum was specific to teaching the technical evolution of photography and process identification to photograph conservators from all over the world.
My role at Scully & Osterman during this period was twofold: to teach public workshops and private tutorials in historic processes and to manage the exhibitions of our own work. Mark and I were also asked to demonstrate the wet collodion process and teach workshops outside the United States during this time, usually in the context of photo conservation. So from 1996 to 2009, we jointly taught collodion workshops in Canada, Spain, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Mexico, Germany, and Japan. In many of these places our workshops were the first time collodion had been used since the nineteenth century. It was, however, a little too early for artists in those places to take notice.

ROBERT | You are using different photographic processes, but collodion was (and is) your favorite. What is its secret, what draws you to it the most?

FRANCE | The artifacts inherent to collodion negatives are reminders that they are entirely handcrafted. Within these artifacts lie distinct possibilities to contribute to the painterliness of the image. Collodion is to photography what watercolor is to painting; fast but requiring ‘exquisite manipulation.’ Initially, I was drawn to the subtle artifacts of the process, as I was with painting, which serve as a distinctive signature of the artist.

Ultimately though, it is not just about artifacts. Even when one becomes facile with the process there are many other factors that contribute to the image-making process. If the only thing the viewer notices are streaks and process-related artifacts, I feel the artist has failed. The process should provide support for the image. Both Mark and I generally work the collodion process cleanly, with very few process artifacts.

Collodion offers other characteristics most people don’t talk about, or perhaps they don’t even realize. In many ways, it’s a superior film with an extremely fine resolution. In addition, it’s blue and UV sensitive, so it records colors differently than the way we see them. We realized early on that the inherent high resolution and spectral reproduction of the collodion process were subtle signatures we both liked. Too many artifacts, such as chemical streaks, drips and stains, took away from these more fluid characteristics of the process.

Everything about collodion negatives and hand-coated prints is tactile. I make my negatives from scratch, beginning with a plain sheet of glass. Every part of the experience of making the images is sensual and so are the results. As an artist, I find that very seductive.


BLUR magazine | Wet Plate | issue-36