An admirer of photographic history and a specialist in large-format platinum portraits, Herbert Ascherman shuttered his commercial photography studio to immerse himself more fully in 19th-century processes. Equipped with an 8x10 Deardorff, his latest project documents the Three Affiliated Tribes of North Dakota. With assistance and introductions from several tribal members, Ascherman’s portrait subjects range from tribal elders to native dancers. Once the project is complete, he plans to donate a series of master platinum prints to the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
Web site: www.ascherman.com
Project: Portraits of the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Reservation, North Dakota, done in collaboration with the tribes and in the manner of Edward Sheriff Curtis.
All images in this article © Herbert Ascherman. Above, Karen Paetz — Sitting Crow
ASMP: How long have you been in business?
HA: 35 years.
ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?
HA: Since 1985.
ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?
HA: Portraiture, nudes, interesting projects.
ASMP: Please describe the processes and techniques central to the making of this work.
HA: All work was done on an 8x10 Deardorff. Prints were made in Platinum, a process patented in 1873 by Englishman William Willis.
© Herbert Ascherman: Nicko Martin
ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?
HA: My imagination.
ASMP: What is unique about your style and approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?
HA: I am self-taught. I have studied the art and craft of photography for almost 40 years. I have researched, written, taught and lectured on the art of photography and the art of portrait photography from its origins in the painting of the Renaissance to its present incarnations. I have a personal library of over 2,100 books on photography. Photography has been my career, and life’s work, not just a job. I’d love to spend an afternoon with Alfred Stieglitz.
© Herbert Ascherman: Zig Jackson
ASMP: After 35 years as a professional portrait photographer, you are now re-prioritizing your career to do personal projects. What combination of personal or business factors moved you in this new direction to pursue new artistic objectives?
HA: I quit the commercial business because of the digital revolution. The camera companies rightly realized that they could sell to 50,000,000 amateurs, so why continue to cater to 50,000 professionals? As a consequence, the business of photography has become so diluted with would-be photographic entrepreneurs that the real professional, the photographer who prizes both the image and the hand-made artifact of a silver or platinum print are nearly a thing of the past. Fortunately, there is a new class of alternative photographers and printers who are resurrecting the 19th century processes and using them with a contemporary vision.
© Herbert Ascherman: George Good Bear
ASMP: Your interest in the culture of the Three Tribes of North Dakota is the inspiration for this large format portrait series. Have you produced other large projects similar to this previously?
HA: My personal form of photographic ‘art’ is the creation of large-scale portrait documentaries generally drawn from the Cleveland area. My first and most important project was entitled 50 Faces, the Holocaust Remembered. In 1986, I photographed and interviewed 50 Cleveland survivors, righteous gentiles, camp liberators and children of survivors. This project has been shown throughout the United States. As of today, over 50 percent of the interviewees are deceased. For the Cleveland Bicentennial in 1996, I visited and photographed 76 religious figures, one of almost every local denomination, in their respective houses of worship. In 2000, I drove over 2,000 miles within a 70-mile radius of Cleveland over a three-month period, photographing 110 artists at 105 different studio locations. For 20 years, I was the portrait photographer to the Cleveland Orchestra, for whom I photographed more than 200 of the finest professional musicians in the country. Since 2005, I have donated more than 1,100 prints of nudes, exotic and erotic images from an ongoing 40-year exploration to the Kinsey Institute’s collection in Bloomington, Indiana. In 2006, I photographed 110 odd, interesting, unusual and for the most part random Clevelanders for an exhibition at the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland entitled Cleveland, America! The exhibition hung in their gallery for almost two years. In 2009, I was asked by the Soldiers and Sailors Monument Commission (Public Square, Cleveland, Ohio) to make platinum portraits of the several dozen bronze friezes that adorn the monument.
© Herbert Ascherman: Asagye Fox
ASMP: Please talk about your research methods in learning about the Three Tribes of North Dakota. How much time have you devoted to this effort?
HA: There really isn’t a lot written on the Three Affiliated Tribes except scattered paragraphs in books and on Internet reference centers. Much of my research, if you would call it that, was through conversations with Anisa Nin, a Minot, North Dakota resident and tribal member, who served as my facilitator. Marilyn Hudson, the director of the Three Affiliated Tribes Museum in New Town, North Dakota, was also extremely helpful with background information.
© Herbert Ascherman: Anisa Nin
ASMP: Numerous tribal members have aided you in this project. How did you initially contact them, and how have they been helpful in arraigning introductions and access to tribal meetings and ceremonies?
HA: I was initially contacted by Anisa Nin, who saw my work on a mutual Web site. Once I discovered her capabilities and background, I immediately enlisted her help in accomplishing this project. I am most interested in individual portraits and initially did not photograph any meetings or ceremonies for logistical reasons, although I was invited to attend several. During my visit to the annual Powwow in August 2010, I did photograph a couple of ceremonies as they were being held in the sacred powwow arena, referred to as the arbor. There was only one instance where the tribe requested no cameras; otherwise everything was open and available to me and the gathered throng.
© Herbert Ascherman: Austin Gillette
ASMP: How do select your subjects, and how do you gain their confidence?
HA: How? I set up the camera at a function, and ask people to sit for me. Working with an 8x10 immediately sets the tone for ‘serious’ photography. I am not just another tourist taking snapshots. The prominence of the large format, the slow shutter speed, the act of physically posing breeds intimacy, mutual respect and trust.
© Herbert Ascherman: May Coffey
ASMP: Please describe a typical portrait session. How much time do you spend with each subject and how do you collaborate on posing and wardrobe?
HA: I spend about 10 minutes taking a portrait. Most subjects are photographed as they are in situ. I spend more time with those who ask for the session and ensuing experience and put time and effort into their costuming or appearance. However they are comfortable, however they present themselves, is how I photograph them.
© Herbert Ascherman: Taylor Eder, Kiaana Dumas, Darci Miller, Jasmyne Big Crow
ASMP: How do your subjects respond when they see their portraits and what are your arrangements with them regarding permission for image use? Do you give prints in exchange for subjects’ signing a model release? Is there any agreement for the portraits to be licensed commercially?
HA: I never photograph anyone in any situation unless they sign a model release first. A black and white silver print is always sent as a thank you for their participation. Platinum prints are printed exclusively for exhibitions and collectors. Should the situation arise where any of the Three Affiliated Tribes (TAT) works become imminently saleable, I will make a sizable donation to the TAT Museums in New Town, North Dakota.
© Herbert Ascherman: Duwayne Howling Wolf
ASMP: You recently spent several weeks photographing Elders and other individuals on the reservations in North Dakota. Please describe this experience and the relationships you forged.
HA: The essence of my work is based on mutual respect. In order to accomplish the degree of intimacy the documentary portraiture that I undertake requires, I must convey to the subject (lousy word) that I will neither steal their soul nor exploit their image. I have been given a remarkable gift, that of the time and resources to undertake portrait documentaries that are far beyond the nominal reach of the average working photographer. As such, each session is treated as a privilege. The Elder, or tribal chief descendant, gives me his or her time. In return, much as did Curtis in 1908, I offer them a relative degree of immortality.
© Herbert Ascherman: Keith Bear
ASMP: You admire the work of photographer Edward Curtis. Please describe the elements of his style or printing process that you seek to emulate.
HA: Although his approach was on a much more grandiose scale, I am attempting to emulate his work in one very small area of the country in which he worked. Curtis took several dozen images on the Fort Berthold Reservation. I have studied his existing work both from his original prints and as well as through a number of publications. Our styles are basically similar in terms of our approach to individual portraits: formal, straight on, and dramatically lit. His studio assistants printed tens of thousands of his images in Platinum. I am hand printing a very few copies of each of mine.
© Herbert Ascherman: Alyssa Howling Wolf
ASMP: One of the things you are known for, and the process used in this project, is platinum printing. When and how did you learn this process? In your opinion how has this process and its reception as an art form evolved over time?
HA: I learned platinum printing from one of the great living masters of the craft, Sal Lopes of Boston. Sal and I were roommates at the University of Hartford in the 60s. Both of us subsequently dedicated our lives to the art and craft of photography. I was a master silver printer. When I began working with an 8x10 almost exclusively about eight years ago, I segued onto platinum printing under his tutelage. (I still use my Hasselblad and Leica for fun and travel). The process had basically died at the end of World War I due to the lack of availability of chemicals. Revived by Richard Benson, Irving Penn and a few others in the late 60s, platinum printing has experienced a renaissance in the past 20 years or so, as have many of the alternative processes such as wet and dry plate collodion, albumen, and even daguerreotypy. These processes have been overwhelmingly received by the art buying public and embraced by the photographic community of artists.
© Herbert Ascherman: Marcus Levings
ASMP: Please describe your working methods when outside shooting large format and making platinum prints, especially how you deal with challenges in working this way on location. Are there any tips you can share with others?
HA: My methods are the simplest of any photographer you will ever meet. I have a subject, find a location, set up the camera and shoot. Image by Ascherman, lighting by God. The only thing that gets in my way is heavy precipitation. Often someone will comment, “This is a lousy day for photographs.” My response is, “No, you just have to take the type of picture the day gives you.” As far as platinum printing, there are six basic steps to making a print. What the gods don’t tell you is that for every step, there are a thousand variables. Once you’ve passed your first thousand prints, you begin to get the hang of what the process can do, and what it does to you.
© Herbert Ascherman: Shannon Fox
ASMP: Have new technologies and digital imaging had any impact on your working methods or the style of your image making? If so, please describe how your work has changed.
HA: Yes. No. I am basically a Luddite, having no interest in digital technologies… except for the fact that I will eventually force myself to learn how to make digital negatives from either scanned negatives or digital files. I have seen miraculous images printed from digitally made transparency film and I am most impressed. For myself, I will never disavow the large format camera and film, but I find the possibility of digital negatives for platinum printing is absolutely intriguing.
© Herbert Ascherman: Sequoia Justyce
ASMP: This summer, you will set up a “Curtis-style” tent in North Dakota to make portraits of tribal dancers at an annual Powwow. Please talk about the cameras, backgrounds and any lighting equipment you will use for this event. Will this coverage differ substantially from your other shoots to date?
HA: We bought a 10x10 WalMart-on-special tent with adjustable flaps. I will have a large reflector and a buffalo robe (they say robe, not skin, as it shows more respect for the buffalo who gave it to us for our use) as a background. The tent will be oriented for southern light. No artificial anything. It is what it is. Same Deardorff, same film holders with 100 ASA sheet film, (I am hoping for about 50 portraits a day, two shots each), same model release, lotsa bottled water.
© Herbert Ascherman: Vivica Alberts
ASMP: Are you planning to distribute your images from this project through any kind of external distribution networks (galleries, image licensing, etc) or offer any images as limited edition prints? If so, please describe these plans.
HA: I am having a major exhibition at the Taube Art Museum in Minot, North Dakota, in 2011. I am anticipating a major gallery show in Cleveland with a possible Washington, D.C. museum exhibition as well. I have produced an on-line book of the first round of images to use as a marketing tool, which will be sent to various museums with an accompanying platinum print. We’ll see. I frankly haven’t gotten farther than the physical logistics of getting the project done. Marketing is for next year, once I have everything in print.
© Herbert Ascherman: Christopher Good Bird and Samantha Hoffman
ASMP: As a professional photographer, your area of specialization is wedding and event portraiture. Please talk about this aspect of your career and what changes and trends you have noticed recently.
HA: Former career. No bride wants a photographer who is older than her parents running around the place snapping photos. That’s for the kids. I will never shoot another social event unless it is held at a nudist colony, Paris museum or in a hot air balloon. I am now concentrating exclusively on portraiture and portraiture-related projects.
© Herbert Ascherman: Girard Baker
ASMP: Has this personal portrait project affected the style or content of your professional portrait work or has it had any effect on how you are perceived by your existing or potential clients? If so, please elaborate.
HA: Not really. I have been working in the studio or on location for 35 years, so, other than the logistical challenges specific to this particular situation, I don’t expect a different vision from what I have done in the past. If anything, these images will show a marked maturity in my work. My current clients, associates and friends are in awe of the fact that I conjure up these projects and follow them through to delivery. I am so busy I don’t know how I ever had time for a full-time business.
© Herbert Ascherman: Marty Young Bear
ASMP: Have you received new opportunities as a result of this project, or have previously untapped markets become more available to you as a result of this work?
HA: Everything I do has a residual nature. Photographs and their allied projects take on a life of their own once they are launched into the world of contemporary art and culture. Call me in a year and I’ll let you know what has happened.
© Herbert Ascherman: Stephanie Moran and Derik Wilkinson
ASMP: How and to what degree do you maintain contact with your subjects after a portrait shoot? In your portrait work in general, have you had much occasion to make repeat portraits of an individual subject? If so, does the second attempt offer you a better understanding of how to flatter an individual subject in a portrait?
HA: A very interesting series of questions. Last question first: sometimes, rarely, but on occasion, I just don’t get a pleasing image the first time around. And sometimes, rarely, I ask for a reshoot. Otherwise, no, I don’t shoot the same person again unless it is a year or so later and we have both grown in the interim. As a commensurate professional portraitist, I am never allowed to have a bad day. My latest work must, by the nature of my assumed professionalism, be my best work. There is no room, or time, for retakes. It’s got to be done right, and done with the first time I work with any subject. And yes, I have always made friends of my clients, and I have stayed in touch with many of them over the years. In a situation like the Fort Berthold portraits, I anticipate returning annually for the next several years and working with my friends and their friends, constantly expanding the circle.
© Herbert Ascherman: Marilyn Cross-Hudson
ASMP: You plan to donate a master series of platinum prints from this project to the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Please describe any arrangements you made for this.
HA: I plan on donating a set once this year’s project is completed. When I have a portfolio of prints in hand, I will approach them with the hopes that they will accept and exhibit the work. Stay tuned!
© Herbert Ascherman: Brian Brady Senior
End Note: In August 2010, during my visit to photograph the annual Powwow, I was given an Hidatsa name in a private naming ceremony by Brian Brady, a tribal elder. We sat quietly in his tent as a ceremonial fire burned sweetgrass and sage. Brian anointed me with water carried from a hallowed spring high in the Colorado Rockies. He touched my head, shoulders and body with a sacred eagle feather. He explained to me that the Sun was the giver of all life, that the Sun nourishes the earth where the buffalo roam and the crops grow, and that the Sun provides the Light under which we live our daily lives. As such, because of my ability with the camera that uses the Sun, the elders decided I should be called Captures The Light. I gave him a gift of thanks and we parted as brothers. It was an extremely emotional occasion and I was much subdued for the remainder of the day.
© Herbert Ascherman: Mandaree, North Dakota