Artist Spotlight : Nick Olson

Pat Brooks

The particular type of photography senior Nick Olson practices, known as wet plate, is off the beaten path. “It’s a historical process invented [in] 1851 by Frederick Scott Archer — I use glass, tin, or stained glass, and take that medium and make photographs with it,” said Olson. The result is a piece of glass or tin with the picture actually on it. “I like wet plate photography because you are creating a unique object that can’t be reproduced. It’s an object in itself. It has a unique quality, and a more hands-on look,” he said.Olson got involved with photography while at Lawrence. “I started doing oil painting, drawing and sculpture in high school. I had never done any serious art photography. I decided, ‘what the hell, I’ll take this photo class from [art professors] Julie [Lindemann] and Johnny [Shimon] — they seem like interesting people,'” he said.

Having found his photographic niche, Olson reflected on the process of taking a wet plate picture and its influence over the final product. “Photography now is so instantaneous, people just go out and snap a picture instantly. Taking a wet plate picture is an involved process. Including set up and loading, a single picture can take half an hour,” he said.

One of his recent projects involved a set of negatives from the turn of the century that he discovered by chance in a relative’s basement. They depicted his ancestors from rural West Virginia, living on land that Olson’s family still owns. He returned to the property to re-photograph the area and the people from there in a piece called “Hillbilly Heritage.”

This last summer, Olson had an opportunity to intern with John Coffer, who, after rediscovering the process, is considered to be the “father of the wet plate renaissance.” Olson went to one of his workshops, and eventually started to work with him. “I was his assistant over the summer, helping him teach his students and maintain the farm he lives on,” he said. The workshop where Olson worked is completely removed from the modern world, lacking all common amenities like electricity and heating, and he spent the entire summer sleeping in a canvas tent.

The rustic experience shaped Olson’s artistic direction. “I liked the slow pace of life,” he said. “I thought it would be hard to adjust to living like that, but it was actually harder to readjust when I returned home.”

Spurred by this inspiration, his latest project is a critique of the modern way of life, particularly tourism. “In the 1860s, a wet plate photographer moved to the Wisconsin Dells and started photographing the landscape. The Wisconsin River goes through the town and there are all these ancient rock formations,” he said. “He used the wet plate process to photograph this beautiful scenery as a way of advertising the place, encouraging people to move there. It worked, and over time it has turned into an ugly place full of water parks and casinos — no one goes there to see the landscape.” Olson plans to take pictures of the modern development there now, to bring the change out in relief.

You can catch a glimpse of Olson’s work at the senior show during spring term, in which he will be showing tintypes (a type of wet plate), and also at a solo show in the Mudd in the spring.