The images look old, from the turn of the 20th century, but they have a sci-fi edge to them. Filled with mysterious, unfamiliar forms, the photos look as if they’ve captured strange, unnatural phenomena on old glass plates. This is the artwork of Peter Franck, who was awarded the first prize in this year’s LensCulture Art Photography Awards.

Franck, who began his career as a painter, received a grant about five years ago to travel from Germany to the United States to research old photo archives. Fascinated by images from 1900 to 1910, he honed in on the archives’ wet plate collodion photos. After viewing more than 25,000 images, he selected about 200 to work with, as a creative collaborator of sorts. The resulting images are mesmerizing.

LensCulture’s editor-in-chief, Jim Casper, spoke with Franck to discuss his process and artistic drive. Here is an edited version of their conversation, along with a few before-and-after images.

LensCulture: So, can you tell me a little bit about how you work with photography? You mention in your artist’s statement that for two years you’ve worked exclusively with archival work.

Peter Franck: I started as a painter years and years ago. I first came in contact with photography through my brother, who is an advertising photographer. Over time, I switched more and more into photography by starting to paint over photographs. I made big, big prints and painted over them. Then about five years ago, I met someone at an art residency in Germany who told us about the amazing archives in Rochester, New York. That was my step into this vintage world.

I got a grant to do some research in Rochester. I went into all these archives, like the Visual Studies Workshop, and then at the George Eastman House. And those led me to others. It went on and on and I got deeper into this world, into this lost world.

LC: What is it about this era, this early era in photography, that attracts you so much?

PF: Maybe you remember times when you were sitting with your grandparents in dark rooms and this screen pulls down, and you were watching holiday pictures? I think I was the only one in my family who was never tired of watching a thousand pictures in a row.

First, I like the atmosphere in the old photos. Then I think about the photographer standing there over 100 years ago, and I think about the time-distance from when the photographer was standing in Yosemite National Park (perhaps) making a photograph there, and then it went to an archive, then they digitalized it, and after all this time, I found something in this picture, which maybe was not the best picture photography-wise, but I’ve found something interesting for my world. So I try to extract the things out of this. My work is like a collaboration between anonymous photographers and me over a long time.

I’m a searcher, I’m a researcher. I bring things out of the dark. I understand myself not really as a photographer, I understand myself more as an artist that works with photography and painting and graphics.

I explored other archives. You know the Library of Congress has an immense collection. I have my favorite techniques and subjects, and I go searching. I search very quickly. Now I research only wet plate images — I think there are 20,000 - 25,000 there which are interesting for me. I scroll down through all these pictures very quickly.

And sometimes, something fits, but I don’t really know what or why. I see something very quickly in the picture, which has a connection to my interests. It’s similar to sometimes when we go out and take photos with a camera. We take a photo, maybe not thinking about every detail, and that’s the same thing I do with the archives. It’s like going out, but instead I just go in the archives.

It’s difficult to explain, but my interests come from my perspective as a painter. Sometimes there’s just a sense of light in a picture, or a cloud, or something like that — indicators for me to pull them out of the archive, and then I start with the work.

Before and after, landscape23056 © Peter Franck

LC: I love that process of just going to explore in the archives, as if you were taking a trip, and just waiting until something intriguing presents itself to you.

PF: I think it’s more fun to go outside doing photos, actually. But because of these great archives, the whole day I sit in front of this computer looking at thousands of old images. Sometimes, I’m wondering what I’m doing here, because the real world is outside.

LC: Yes, of course. So, tell me a little bit about your process once you find a picture that you want to start your collaboration with.

PF: I’m not interested in who made the pictures. I look at the dates. Most of my pictures were made around 1900 to 1910. And the themes, the topics are mostly landscapes, seascapes. It began with finding some very interesting photos about ships, wrecked, and my interest opened up to all kinds of seascapes and landscapes. Then I try to extract that special essence that I noticed, like some miracle inside the picture, some story. Sometimes, the pictures are too perfect for me, because the photographer, a hundred years before, did such good work that it’s difficult to change something. So, I set those aside.

The pictures I prefer are on the edge of becoming an artwork, and I try to bring it to an end.

LC: Creativity is a mysterious process, right?

PF: Sure. Sometimes it just needed a stripe or a cloud or something like that, which attracted me into the picture. Then I work for maybe one day on the picture, maybe one, two days.

LC: So, tell me a little bit about the process that you go through then.

PF: Yes, it’s just doing Photoshop. That’s all.

LC: But are you incorporating some photographs that you’ve made into the other one, or are you drawing from other archival photos, or…

PF: Sometime I mix them. I have a big archive with trees, clouds, everything. And if I sense something is missing from the composition, I put them together. Maybe I need more clouds, so I go into my archive of clouds…

But before this wet plate stuff started, I did the same thing with other kinds of images. I have faces, I have legs, I have wallpapers, a lot of wallpapers. And like the colors I have in the studio, I use them where they will work.

I think the best things are when you see something and you do it directly, and it’s finished in about two hours. If you work too hard or too long on a picture, it goes over the top sometimes. And it’s too perfect. And that’s the charm of these old photos. They are perfect in a way, but imperfect in another way.

Before and after, an example © Peter Franck

LC: What’s next for you?

PF: My plan is to make some big prints from the photos you know now from this contest. It’s a big series, it’s maybe 200 pictures from this series.

LC: Oh, wow.

PF: Yeah, my series are really big. It’s maybe a German kind of thinking that if you do something, you have to do a lot of it. Not just testing. If it works, you have to do it as long as you think there’s something new to explore. Then there comes a time when you think, yeah, you can do another thousands of them, yet what will that accomplish? But most of the time it’s not a sharp change like a cut; it flows from one theme or one series into another.

LC: In your statement, you said, “At the beginning of photography’s history, there existed the moment, the light, and the motive.” Can you expand a little more on that? Tell me how you think things have changed and evolved since that early history.

PF: Things have changed so much. I think nowadays, it’s the problem that there’s this enormous mass of pictures, and not many people care about the light or composition too much, because they have in mind, we can fix it after. I know this from this advertising stuff, because sometimes I go with my brother, and it doesn’t matter if it’s too dark. It doesn’t matter if there are too many people in it.

LC: We can correct it all after the fact, right.

PF: But in former days, a guy would stand on top of a hill waiting two hours to make a one-second exposure, and that was what you got. I am trying to come to this point, but with another technology. I’m using digital technology with archival images, but my next step is to make my own wet plate images and work with them. That’s why I am starting to use a big old wet plate collodion camera, and when I perfect that process, I will be completely analog again.

Before and after, an example © Peter Franck

LC: I’m really eager to see what you do next. And you’re thinking, in terms of subject matter, you’ll continue with landscapes, or …

PF: No, not necessarily. Landscapes do have many possibilities to express different ideas. For now, I’m into this landscape thing, but who knows. Because sometimes it’s a technique that brings you to another theme. Maybe I will find some cityscapes here with this old camera, and then I will switch. But I switch slowly.

I’m a searcher, I’m a researcher, I bring things out of the dark. I understand myself not really as a photographer, I understand myself more as an artist that works with photography and painting and graphics.

With this old camera, I’ve made 50 or 70 wet plates now, and it’s not that difficult, technically. The difficulties are to bring the camera in the woods with everything you need … I ‘m trying to develop a car, you know these small Italian cars with the three wheels? They’re called Apes. You have three wheels, one in front, two in the back. Well I was thinking about doing a mobile darkroom inside, and then go out to people in the city or go out in the woods. But we will see.

— Peter Franck interviewed by Jim Casper