Dada Masilo

Barney Melton

15 May 15 words: Alison Emm
This bloke has been bringing a massive camera to the Malt Cross and snapping Nottingham residents in a way that puts the selfie fad to shame
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Where did the idea for the Faces of Nottingham book come from?
When we started we never had any intention of making a book, it was just a case of shooting people and exhibiting it. But because no-one else was doing it in the UK, we thought “Why don’t we do a book. A catalogue of people’s faces.”

You started taking the pictures about a year ago…
It was May 2014 when we were first at the Malt Cross, but the whole idea came about about two years ago. My dad showed me a tintype from the 1880s, from the American Midwest. It was a tiny thing, about the size of a passport shot. I’d never seen anything like it before and just fell in love. I thought, “I have to do some of this.” I did some research and at the time there was only about two people in the whole country doing it.

I found out why - the science behind it is ridiculous. We bought the camera to have a bit of fun, but when we showed it to various friends, family and people in the industry, they fell in love with it and said, “Why don’t you take pictures of other people.” It really took off, we got people from all over the country coming to the sessions. They’re not in the book, obviously, that would be a bit of a breach of the name. I’ve tried to keep friends, couples and families together in the book - it gives it a bit of personal relevance.

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Our Barneh

The photos - paper positives and tintypes - tell us about the difference between them and how they differ from a standard photograph…
The tintype was invented in 1851 by an English bloke called Frederick Scott Archer. You get a sheet of tin and then pour collodion on it - collodion is a substance that allows the silver particles to stick to it - which has got the viscosity of baby oil and you coat the plate with it. You then submerge the prepared plate into a silver nitrate bath for about three or four minutes, put it into a dark slide and that’s what goes into the camera.

You’ve then only got two or three minutes to take the picture before it dries out and becomes useless - hence its other name, a wet plate. It’s not black and white and it’s not colour, it’s its own category. These were a big hit in the 1850s until faster processes were invented. It’s also incredibly dangerous because the collodion is a mixture of pure ether, guncotton and alcohol, which mixed in the right proportions is basically nitroglycerin. It was the biggest killer of photographers in the 1850s because everyone blew themselves up. The collodion comes premixed and the ether they use is less toxic nowadays so I’m not worried about blowing myself up.

The direct positive paper is very special because I have the world’s supply of it. The company that produced it in Switzerland went bust and I found out about a week after that, so we bought all the supply from New York, Germany, all over England and Europe... It’s like gold dust. The other special thing is that there’s no negative so you don’t have to slap it in an enlarger and reverse it on to different paper, the pictures only takes about five minutes.

Was it quite a gamble to buy up all that stock?
We bought it all after the first session. It had gone so well that that we were confident enough to go out and buy it all.

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Have you been approached by other photographers wanting to get some?
There was a bloke in America, Joshua Black Wilkins, who is a musicians and shoots a lot of it. He wanted to buy some. I said, “No chance, mate.”

One of the unique things with your shots is that they’re all posed either face or side on and with blank expressions. Was this a purely aesthetic choice or to get around the restrictions of the camera?
Partly the latter, but since the very beginning I had a very specific idea of how I wanted the website - and later on, the book - to look. It’s rare in photographs to have no expression - people are always smiling or have a cheeky grin or something. These are almost documenting what humans look like naturally. But also, with this set up, I have to focus the camera, have a twiddle of the lights, then put the dark slide in - for someone to sit still for that amount of time and smile, it would look like rigour mortis had set in. Only about three or four people have smiled. But it’s not something I particularly enjoy doing - you may as well go to Venture or one of those places.

What do you think the appeal of the photos is?
It’s like Record Store Day, it’s the total opposite of the digital movement. Everyone’s bored… you’ve got an iPhone with thousands of pictures on it, you never print them out, they’re just sat in the Cloud. Some of the younger people that have come in, they’ve never held a photograph. With these, you get to touch it, feel it, smell it - they have a bit more sentimental purchase, when you’ve got them framed, they mean something as opposed to being on a hard drive. It also really tapped into the minds of creative people. It’s something different, exactly the same as the vinyl thing, it’s the resurgence of traditional mediums that appeals to people.

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Do you think the resurgence might be too late in some ways, what with the film places going out of business, film stock being expensive…
I know a lot of people in London that are shooting on film again, and a lot of printers who are opening up their dark rooms again. The prices are films are dropping, and there’s a massive resurgence. Film’s never been dead, it was just dying - but now it’s coming back to life. People are bored of digital cameras, when you have a film camera you have to think about what you’re doing, it’s not just click click click and then choose the best shot.

Have you ever had anyone absolutely hate their shot?
Yeah, there’s been about three or four. I have to say, “It’s not the shot you don’t like, it’s your own face.” That doesn’t go down too well but technically it’s a perfect shot. It doesn’t make you look attractive necessarily, it’s not something you’d use for your dating profile unless it’s a really nice one. But this is what I was saying earlier about it documenting what people look like. It’s a bit more honest.

You’re coinciding the release of the book with an exhibition - how many of the photos will be displayed?
I’m going to have ten or fifteen 2 x 1m images. Absolutely massive. Then thirty to forty A3 shots. It’s basically going to be what’s kind of in the book, but on the walls. The money shots. I wanted to showcase more, but I didn’t want hundreds on the wall because it’s too much to take in and gets tedious. The book has about 115 portraits in it, though.

Will you be taking the concept of the book further?
Once the Faces of Nottingham exhibition and book is done, I plan on doing more volumes. The next one is at the Lambeth Arts Festival in London. We’ve got a space and a studio where people can get a shot done at the festival, and that in itself will probably end up being a book and exhibition.

You’re a fashion photographer by trade - how did you first get into photography?
My dad, he was a photographer and had a commercial studio in Battersea in London. I got brought up in the studio and wherever I went I always had a camera with me. It’s what I’ve done for thirty years, I don’t know how to do anything else.

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Camera inception

Do you remember your first camera?
It was a Fisher Price, it was bright yellow. I must have been about three or four years old, and from that I went on to using Polaroid. Then 110 and 120 film, and then onto 35mm. We moved to Nottingham when the recession hit in the early nineties and he set up a studio in Carrington Street which I was always at too.

Tell us a bit about the camera you’ve been shooting on?
The first camera that I used for the Nottingham sessions is a 5x4 ex-RAF monorail technical camera with a seventy-year-old lens. We’ve just got an 8x10 camera that was made in 1916 in New York, and was sat at the back of someone’s studio for about 25 years. The bloke didn’t even know it was there. He is mates with my dad, and my dad said to him one day, “What’s in that box?” He said, “What box?” He opened it up and there’s this 100-year-old camera.

My dad asked if he could have it, and the bloke said, “Alright, just get me some lunch.” He got it for the price of a BLT or something. It’s beautiful... immaculate. It weighs a ton, it’s not something you want to schlep up to the bottom of a mountain to take a landscape shot. We’re going to use that and the 5x4 in Lambeth. I’ve already seen the next camera that I want, it’s a 20x24. It’s just about getting a lens for it - I’m searching the internet for one at the moment.

How many cameras do you actually own - do you even know?
I don’t know! So many… about twenty or thirty.

Faces of Nottingham Exhibition and book launch, Bohunk Institute, Thursday 15 - Wednesday 20 May, free.

Melton Original Portraits website

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