Interview with Clarke Galusha

Written by Sarah Graves

Where: Saraveza Bottle Shop and Pasty Tavern on N Killingsworth, Portland OR.

ST: So, I wanted to start at the beginning and ask those same questions that are always asked…have you always been interested in photography? Or were there other forms of art that you were interested in?

CG: Yes, I had an interest in photography at an early age. My brother is, or was, 6 years older. He was always an inspiration and an idol for me. He was a prolific painter and won all kinds of awards in high school and went on to study art in college.

He was the first person to put a camera in my hands. He saw in high school that I was struggling with other art forms, so he put a camera in my hand, probably right after high school.

I was working at Wolf Camera. It was a one hour lab. I was able to process all my 35mm film there and took it from there and eventually ended up going to art school, studying photography.

ST: Where did you attend art school?

CG: Louisiana Tech. How it happened was – I was living with this girl in Tulsa, OK, where I grew up. She moved to Louisiana to go to school and I followed her. I found out that Louisiana Tech had a BFA in photography, so I thought I might as well go for that. It turned out to be really awesome.

ST: So you were shooting with a 35mm camera?

CG: Yes. It was my father’s Nikon F that he gave my brother, and my brother gave me. There is some history to that camera.

So while I was at Tech, I was a somewhat older student and it wasn’t really an art school. There was myself and another guy who were really into the craft of photography. We had our own darkroom, were very close with the professors, and got keys to the building. But the biggest perk was being referred for a job with a local photographer, who lived in Monroe, about a half hour away.

I became an assistant for Deborah Luster for two years, while she was working on her project called “One Big Self, Prisoners of Louisiana.” She made portraits and printed them on painted aluminum, so they looked like tintypes. So most of my job was creating the plates.

ST: What was it like to work with Deborah Luster?

CG: Seeing her multi-year dedication to her one project of photographing the prisoners and how much involvement went into it was fascinating. She also gave thousands of prints back to the prisoners. Some of those prisoners hadn’t had pictures of themselves for many years, and she was able to give those to the prisoners. Then they could send them to their family, which had a big impact for those families. But just being involved with a working photographer, it’s really nice to see how much effort, love, and dedication it takes to pull off a project. I feel like I owe a lot to her. When we were leaving Louisiana, Deb was finishing her prisoners project and starting to work on her next project. She had just learned the wet plate process, and I was about to get married. Debbie shot our wedding invitation photo as an ambrotype. At the time I had no idea what the process was all about. I think that may have planted the seed of making Tintypes.

A wet plate portrait of Clarke and Christie made by Deborah Luster.

A wet plate portrait of Clarke and Christie made by Deborah Luster.

ST: What were you working on personally?

Well, I met Christie, who is now my wife. I lived in a little rental home in the “ghetto,” and she would walk around with me. And we got invited to neighbors’ family reunions, BBQs and things like that. I walked by all the time, and back and forth to school. My neighbors and I got to know each other. I didn’t try to take their photographs the first day we’d meet. I was eventually able to get some really intimate pictures. I also spent a lot of time shooting Christie. My senior show was shots of her in large format.

ST: After graduation- how did you end up coming to Oregon?

CG: In 2003 I graduated, got married, my brother hanged himself, and we moved to Oregon. We wanted to get out of the south, both of us did. I had a best friend up here, and my brother had lived here and in Olympia. So I came up here and had a friend who was working for the Willamette Week and did some work with him. But, really I just didn’t pursue anything artistically for years while I ran away from dealing with my brother’s suicide and not processing it. I really didn’t do much photographically from 2003-2008.

Looking back, I was really successful photographing my neighbors, and family reunions, and senior portraits and thought I had life figured out. I was 27 or something. And having my brother die, and moving to a new city, where every other person is an amazing artist. You know, being overwhelmed. It was weird to have this 7 or 8 year hiatus and then just come back to it and try to find myself- it has been an experience.

ST: Nothing seems forced about anything that you do, or have done. It’s nice and refreshing.

CG: Thank you. I do struggle with that. I think if I were to push harder or have more deadlines…well maybe it’s a double edged sword because having the deadline of the Newspace show really got me to make this body of work. When I don’t have a deadline I tend to get lazy.

In 2009, I kind of started picking up photography a little more. When Christie got pregnant with Jasper, I really started shooting more. I started taking classes at Newspace. That first year that I was a member of Newspace – where they have an annual juried show – I entered the show with ten of the images I had taken of my rural neighbors in Louisiana and ended up winning the big prize – a solo show.

Clarke’s early work from Louisiana.

Clarke’s early work from Louisiana.


ST: How did you decide on your subject matter for the show?

CG: Well, so, I won, and I was overwhelmed. I started taking classes at Newspace: I took a lighting class, I took a Photoshop class and some others, and started shooting again.

The original project that I had in mind for the show was to document my elderly neighbors in NE Portland. I had a horrible time getting into these peoples’ houses. They weren’t as open and friendly as the Southern folks.

I actually got a Hasselblad 500 CM from Jake at Blue Moon and was very down to once again go out and document my neighbors. I wanted to get in their houses because a lot of their houses were stuck in the late 1960s, early 70s. But I had a lot of trouble doing that, so I tried to do a landscape project. But there were no people in it, so it didn’t really do anything for me.

I was at the end of my rope and didn’t know what I was going to do for the show that was due in three months. I had to have my show to Newspace by the end of October 2012. I had to fill up 120 feet of wall space with work. So I decided to look up tintypes in Portland and found Ray Bidegain and there was this instant connection. I took a tintype workshop with him at the end of August 2012, and he agreed to be my mentor.

ST: How did your subject matter come about or develop? Why kids?

CG: I think I wanted to photograph kids because Jasper was just born, and I had all things children on my mind. I’m the youngest of 17 cousins, and all of my neighbors growing up were older. I never experienced kids so much. I was overwhelmed by how brilliant and amazing they are when they are so small. Jasper was going to this awesome playschool, and I just wanted to make portraits of all of the kids there. So that is where I started recruiting kid models. I took tintypes of Jasper and his friends and some of the other playschool kids. It turned out that Chris Bennett’s kid was starting there, so I photographed his son. It just kind of snowballed.

ST: Your tintypes are very unique, and I’ve never seen anything quite like them. So, I wanted to talk about your technique with the strobe lights. Can you talk about that?

CG: Ray Bidegain was a huge help with this. When I first told him that I wanted to shoot kids, he said that would be really rough, that I would have to shoot older kids or get strobes. The day that I learned how to create tintypes from him, my wife and son Jasper came and modeled. He was two-and-a-half at the time, and we did three tintypes, and you couldn’t even make out that he was a kid. He was a blur. So I knew I had to get some strobes.

Clarke’s son Jasper, without strobe light.

Clarke’s son Jasper, without strobe light.

Portland has an awesome wet plate family, and Ray is part of that, so he introduced me to a couple of other guys. A few of them were using strobes, so I was able to pick their brains. I started by shooting Jasper at home. Something about it worked. The second-hand tripod that I got could only be lowered to a certain height, so I had to be shooting down at the kids somewhat. Something about them looking up worked, too. I also didn’t direct any of the kids to smile or do anything. I just had them sit there and be themselves.

I had two weekends where I was able to shoot in Ray’s backyard. His younger daughter, Emogene, recruited the neighbors, their friends, and her friends. She was awesome. I had two weekends with five or six appointments each day, so that was 12 kids. And I think those were some of the best shots I’d made. Ray sometimes talked with his neighbors or checked out the tintypes but gave me full access to his darkroom, and I had my strobes set up and my backdrop in his backyard. It was a grueling, ether-induced day. I think I shot almost 250 tintypes in six weeks, just to get the 42 for the show.

After I had said, “I don’t need any more kids,” I just kept getting emails and requests from parents. So I started Tintype Portland.

ST: That’s pretty awesome.

CG: I had 14 months to come up with this show, and here I was in August, just coming onto this new process. But that whole year was awesome. I’m really glad I had that year because I went through so many stages of growth and reconnected with myself again.

ST: That’s understandable. It was probably built up from the years that you were dormant, right?

CG: Yes. I had just gone to Italy, and I won a solo show, and I was having a son. It was a re-birthing.

I learned at the end of August how to make tintypes, shot 59 kids in six weeks, and put up 42 tintypes.

Clarke Galusha’s solo show at Newspace.

Clarke Galusha’s solo show at Newspace.


ST: I think it’s in their eyes; they really glow.

CG: I mean, there is something about the catch lights of the reflectors in their eyes. But it’s more than that–it’s just kids. The process ages everybody, but when you have a four-year-old on a tintype, looking straight into the lens, and it’s super sharp, it’s intense.

ST: Your strobe setup really allows you to shoot any time of day and virtually anywhere.

CG: It does; it is nice. I love the immediate satisfaction thing. It’s kind of like digital, in that you are getting something right away. But it definitely is not digital.

I don’t have a darkroom, well, a traditional darkroom, or running water or a drain, but you are able to complete the process that way. And you can do it on location because of that.

ST: Do you have any plans to explore other subject matters in the future?

CG: I think I will be sticking with photographing kids for my business.

So, personal projects that I really want to do–I have always really wanted to shoot some of my clients at Cascadia. There is a lot of red tape involved in that because they have mental health diagnoses, and I work there or have worked there. So, there are their rights and what you can actually do with those photos. In the back of my mind, I think it was part of me wanting to go back to working there.

ST: You are offering workshops on making tintypes now; is this correct?

CG: Yes, it is on my website. I teach one or two people at a time to make tintypes, which is how I learned, by going to Ray’s house for six or seven hours. I think it’s really fun. I’ve been doing it for a little over one year, and I am still amazed, obsessed and surprised by it all. It is still really magical. I’ve done three sessions so far independently. Ray and I also taught a class at Reed College which was over two evenings. I love sharing the process with other people.

Did we cover everything?

ST: We did, but I just like hearing you talk. Thank you for sharing everything.