Historian-turned-photographer revives centuries-old film techniques 

As the title of one of her photographs states, Lori Oden believes that "Beauty Is Everywhere."

For "Optics and Alchemy," currently showing in the North Gallery of the Oklahoma state Capitol, Oden transformed objects and nature in her own back yard into nostalgic art through centuries-old photographic processes.

Combining a master's degree from the University of Oklahoma in 19th-century art history with her work as curator and educator at the International Photography Hall of Fame inside Science Museum Oklahoma, she discovered early photo methods and found ways to re-create them.

"I really wasn't a photographer. I was a historian," she said. "I just wanted to learn the processes for the history part of it. As I got into photography, I realized I liked doing it."

Her specialties now include daguerreotype, wet collodion, cyanotype, calotype, tintype and other complicated, messy methods used to capture images before the advent of current film processing. Oden uses few modern tools in creating and processing her film, and even replicated some of the 19th-century darkroom equipment to duplicate the processes as accurately as possible.

"People are so overwhelmed with digital, they kind of forget the old stuff," she said. "It takes a lot more time to do the historic processes. My personal opinion is that the digital photographs lack quality. The 19th-century processes capture details a lot better than modern day processes."

"Optics and Alchemy" is her first solo show, filled with prints made in recent years. Although the photographs depict objects as ordinary as chopped onions or beads of water on a collection of apples, the rich texture of the prints and the imperfections highlighted by the traditional processes give them a detailed depth. Part of Oden's interest in everyday objects came from studying for her bachelor's degree in art history at the University of Missouri in Kansas City.

"I lived in an old apartment. I was in the ghetto and going to school and waiting tables. My professor was talking about how this photographer said that if you can't find anything in your back yard to take a photograph of, you won't be able to find anything elsewhere," she said. "At that time, I couldn't completely understand what she was staying. But I've since learned you can find beauty and interesting things in your own house and in your own space."

For Oden, the slow process of printing an image on silver, glass, paper or metal is as important as the image itself. Several of the photographs in the exhibit are tintypes, which cannot be reproduced like her glass negatives, as they are made by putting film directly on tin and exposing it in the camera.

"Even with a 35 mm camera, you can just snap off pictures," she said. "With the historic processes, you use a larger camera and a lot more time is taken to make the photograph. I make my own chemistry, I coat my own paper, I make my own film."

Although the old techniques are more time-consuming and complicated than modern methods, Oden strives to preserve the traditions by teaching them as an adjunct professor at Oklahoma City University and Oklahoma State University in Oklahoma City.

"There are probably less than 200 people in the world that do these processes," she said. "It's something that could be lost if we don't pass it along."

"Optics and Alchemy" is sponsored by the Oklahoma Arts Council and will show through Sept. 7. The North Gallery is located on the first floor of the Capitol and is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

"?Allison Meier

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