Revisiting the dark arts of 19th century photography

  • Arts
  • Tuesday, 17 Oct 2017

An artwork entitled Who Cares Wins (2017) by British artist Harland Miller. — AFP

To the uninitiated, the picture he paints sounds a bit like a mad scientist hard at work at his bizarre concoctions.

Working with metal salts, ether and alcohol, watching images appear like magic in a cloud of mercury vapours, all while working in isolation in a room, shut off from the rest of the world? Applying a coat of gold chloride on a silver-clad plate? Or coating salt prints with raw beeswax and lavender oil?

Dr K. Azril Ismail knows these all too well because he dabbles in the art of early photography.

Some of his works, employing photographic processes dating back to the 1830s, are now featured in his solo exhibition at Wei-Ling Gallery in Kuala Lumpur. Thirty Pieces Of Silver is a collection of daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes and salt prints, including the first piece he produced about five years ago.

“Photography of the past is not like the photography of today. I had over 30 failed plates before I successfully produced my first daguerreotype, but that’s just the nature of early photography. Failure is pretty much routine and it absolutely blew me away when I made my first daguerreotype,” says Azril.

19th century photographic processes
Skull, Warrior, Bird And Guide Book (Table Study)  (daguerreotype, silver clad plate coated with gold chloride, 2012).

This piece titled Skull, Warrior, Bird And Guide Book (Table Study) is the first daguerreotype you will see upon stepping into the gallery in Brickfields. Thirty Pieces Of Silver is his second exhibition with the gallery following his Live Animals Inside in 2009, which documented the now-demolished Pudu Jail in Kuala Lumpur.

Earlier this year, Azril participated in a group art exhibition at Galeri Petronas titled Wayang U-Wei: Hanyut Merentasi Saksi, and was involved, alongside Liew Kung Yu and Yee I-Lann, in photography mentorship programme Exposure X by Exposure+ in collaboration with Our ArtProjects.

He graduated with an arts degree in media studies (photography) from the Columbus College of Art and Design in the US in 2001, then pursued his masters at Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) the following year.

Starting in 2005, he lectured first at the Limkokwing Institute of Creative Technology before moving on to UiTM to share his knowledge on photographic based studies. In 2010, he started his PhD at Plymouth University in Britain and in 2015, became associate lecturer and demonstrator, with a focus on alternative photographic process. He returned to Malaysia last year.

Azril calls himself many things: an image-maker, an ambrotypist, a daguerrean, a photographer, a darkroom practitioner, an educator, a consultant, a chemical supplier. But call it what you will; at this point of his life what is certain to him is that he is wholly dedicated to the advancement of old photographic processes in the 21st century.

19th century photographic processes
A Christmas Eve (tintype. hand tinted and burnish, coated with sandarac varnish, 2016).

Azril’s love story with these 19th century photography processes and formats started at a Sunday flea market in London when he was studying in Britain.

“It was at that flea market that I stumbled upon this very intricate and interesting object, a daguerreotype. This polished piece of silver, I have seen images of it in textbooks but to actually hold it in your hand is quite an experience. It looks like a mirror, that when viewed from the right angle, reveals an image. It is so bizarre and magical, I wondered how people came about to creating something like this,” relates Azril.

19th century photographic processes
The Painter (ambrotype, black spectrum stained glass, coated with sandarac varnish, 2014).

This was the start of him obtaining, often with great difficulty, manuals from that period of time. But he persevered in his search for them, uncovering one after another tucked away in antique stores and shops specialising in rare books, then spent many a day and night poring over them.

“I studied these manuals from the 19th century and conducted many inquiries into the feasibility of reproducing these objects. I learned the chemistry behind it, bought the chemicals, tools and equipment I needed, and even built some of them myself,” he says.

To Azril, a big part of photography is what goes on behind the picture; how different elements come together in producing an image that is immortalised for eternity.

There has been a steady stream of photographers and art enthusiasts visiting this show in Wei-Ling Gallery.

“What impressed me the most in the exhibition is the collection of photos Dr Azril took of his peers during a wet plate collodion outing in Britain. The amount of equipment and dedication these photographers have in order to pursue their passion is mind-boggling,” says Eiffel Chong, a photographer and lecturer, who was at the exhibition.

“Printed images or as Dr Azril calls them ‘image objects’ will long outlive us in this lifetime. But what is most important is that the context and significance (attached to them) is preserved as well,” says Jeffrey Lim, who operates a homemade woodbox camera with his Kanta project.

19th century photographic processes
Visitors at Wei-Ling Gallery examine the daguerreotypes, tintypes, ambrotypes and salt prints on display at Azril's solo exhibition Thirty Pieces Of Silver. Photo: The Star/Darran Tan

In today’s oversaturated world of digital images, Azril believes that it is these works that will truly stand the test of time.

“Producing these works is like leaving clues and breadcrumbs for the people of the future. Many years later, if they change upon them, they could probably guess what it is, or at the very least have a fantasy of what it possibly could be. I suppose you could say these works are like heirlooms for the future,” he muses.

But not everyone is convinced of the artistry of what Azril does.

Are you an artist, a very good technician, or a craftsperson, he was asked by an elderly gentleman who visited the exhibition. Is photography really art?

19th century photographic processes
Azril Ismail is drawn to the science behind photography and views works such as his as heirlooms of the future. Photo: The Star/Darran Tan

“To me, photography is the pinnacle of science. I have never had any intention of looking at it as art, especially not as art for art’s sake. Photography is not about art to me, it is about the science behind it. It is an observation of things of today, or the things of yesterday – and hopefully a thing of tomorrow as well,” says Azril.

Highlighting that the photographic processes and formats he is singularly focused on can indeed be highly technical, he also concedes that it can be philosophical.

“Coincidentally, it is beautiful as well, and a romantic version of how things are made. Now is that not truly ‘art’ enough?” he ponders.

Thirty Pieces Of Silver is on at Wei-Ling Gallery, 8, Jalan Scott, Brickfields in Kuala Lumpur till Oct 31. For more information, call 03-2260 1106 or visit

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