My Project: Raw Emulsion

Matthew Brandt's images of waterways are processed using the very same water he photographs

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To narrow the list of potential subjects, Brandt chose the bodies of water with the most compelling names, such as Loveland Reservoir, Big Bear Lake, and Lake Matthews.Matthew Brandt

After moving to Los Angeles from New York in 2006 to earn an MFA at UCLA, Matthew Brandt found himself most inspired to play around in the darkroom. “I’d had this New York repression of space, so I went a bit wild with the printing space,” the 30-year-old photographer explains.

His love for the magic of photo chemistry inspired him to explore salt-paper printing, a 19th-century technique that involves coating paper in a salt solution before printing. One day, after shooting large-format images of the ocean, he replaced the salt solution with ocean water. Photographing a nearby lake, he wondered whether he could incorporate lake water into his process in a different way: After making a standard 16x20 color print, he dumped the image into a tray full of collected lake water, letting it sit for days.

The results were both unexpected and intruiguing. “Lake water breaks down the color emulsion,” Brandt says. “And there’s a lot of uncontrolled gesture, with different results from pulling prints out of the tray in different ways.”

He began hunting for more local lakes and reservoirs, bringing along his 4x5 Cambo, Kodak Portra 160NC film, and 5-gallon jugs. Later, at the UCLA studio, he’d print on every type of paper he could find, leaving 16x20 and larger prints in the water bath for anywhere from a few days to a few months.

As the project grew, Brandt began experimenting with digital, taking panoramas with his Canon EOS 5D Mark II and stitching them together in Adobe Photoshop to make prints up to 6 feet tall. After sending his files to a local printer, he immersed the inkjet prints in a lake bath he had set up in his studio.

The resulting series, “Lakes & Reservoirs,” was shown recently at Yossi Milo Gallery in New York. But he is still experimenting—lately, with images and water from waterfalls.

What fascinates him most is the process. “I like the idea of making and breaking—capturing the best possible image and knowing that it will be degraded,” Brandt says.

See more of Brandt’s “Lakes & Reservoirs” at

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Matthew Brandt
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