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More than meets the eye

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Nick Brandreth is a multidisciplinary artist whose creative pursuits range from making photographic images with Lippmann plates to producing "cosmic horror" movies. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • Nick Brandreth is a multidisciplinary artist whose creative pursuits range from making photographic images with Lippmann plates to producing "cosmic horror" movies.
As the longtime photographic process historian at the George Eastman Museum in 2012, Mark Osterman was hesitant to bring on an intern.

His concern was that such a person wouldn’t stick around long enough to have an impact on the work — but what he didn’t account for was the irrepressibly inquisitive nature of one Nick Brandreth.

The Rochester Institute of Technology graduate had moved back to his home state of New Jersey and worked as a photographer for the Wall Street Journal and Mercedes-Benz, and initially reached out to attend a workshop about tintypes with Osterman.

Upon securing the internship, Brandreth moved back to Rochester, where he would work with Osterman for nearly a decade. “He ate it up,” Osterman said. “He asked good questions, and I could tell that first day what kind of a student he would be.”

At times, Osterman wasn’t sure he could keep up with Brandreth.

“Nick talks very quickly, and his mind works very quickly,” Osterman said. “I remember coming home and telling my wife, ‘I don't know if I can survive him.’ His energy was so high, it was exhausting.”



As Brandreth learned more about different photographic techniques, Osterman gave him more responsibility, eventually putting him in charge while Osterman was away leading workshops. Brandreth became the primary teacher of a workshop about the use of gelatin emulsions in photography, and after eight months of working as an unpaid intern, Brandreth was hired as a full-time employee, at the suggestion of Osterman.

Brandreth, now 37, currently works as the repair engineer at the Rochester Institute of Technology’s School of Photographic Arts and Sciences. But that’s only a part of his relationship to photography and art as a whole.

“His creative spark — you don’t need to fan that flame,” Osterman said. “It fans itself.”
Brandreth holds one of his Lippmann plates, the result of the only naturally occurring color photography process. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • Brandreth holds one of his Lippmann plates, the result of the only naturally occurring color photography process.
Perhaps the most distinct photographs Brandreth creates are those made with Lippmann plates. Whereas traditional film photography uses a dry plate to capture the amplitude of light passing through the camera lens, Lippmann plates record light waves when they are out of phase with one another. In other words, the light bumps into itself, resulting in the colors seen in the image.

“It's like on a rainy morning, when you look at an oil slick (on a puddle), you see prismatic colors,” Osterman said. “That's because it's breaking up white light from the sky, to create those colors. These plates have no inherent color, but when you shine light on them a certain way, you see a full color photograph.”

Brandreth’s Lippmann plates look like vivid still-life renderings.

“I’m not the only person in the world who makes Lippmann images, but everybody else’s are kind of boring,” he said. His reasoning for that bold statement? Many people who produce Lippmann images focus on the science of it, rather than the aesthetics.

Brandreth admitted there is no practical application for Lippmann images today, even though they are the result of the only color photography process that occurs naturally.

His art is thoroughly postmodern. His portraiture has the hi-res look of digital photography, but the monochromatic aesthetic and intensity of tintype photography. The result is as if Dust Bowl-era citizens were given modern clothing. Brandreth directs his subjects as if they were playing a role in a movie.

“When I do a portrait session, I usually come up with something weird for you to think about,” Brandreth said. “I'll tell somebody, ‘Okay, you've just invented something that's going to change the way humanity exists forever. But now the government's come to you and they want to weaponize it. Think about that.’”
Brandreth in his home studio in Irondequoit. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • Brandreth in his home studio in Irondequoit.
He uses his custom portraiture work for storytelling, but when he wants to tell weird stories, he turns to filmmaking.

A co-creator of the short films “Again” and “10.13.12,” as well as the 2023 feature-length movie “Blue Hour: The Disappearance of Nick Brandreth,” he has variously served as director of photography, producer and art director. The next movie project on his agenda, “The Drumlins”—for which Brandreth will serve as art director—will be filmed in the fall. These cinematic works all reflect the artist’s interest in the horror genre.

“It’s one of the oldest genres,” Brandreth said, “and it’s a way to deal with things in your life, especially nowadays where there's so much shit going on. And it’s a way to digest and approach fears and things that make you uncomfortable.”

Brandreth worked for 10 years as the historic process specialist at the George Eastman Museum. During that time, he became known as “the museum guy.” But he was wary of this one-dimensional identity; and so the artist can just as easily be found making films or drawing and painting as well as taking photographs. In fact, he draws and paints for at least an hour every night.

“I’m curious,” he said. “ I follow my bliss—this makes me happy, I’m going to explore that.”

Daniel J. Kushner is an arts writer at CITY. He can be reached at [email protected].

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