The Lightcatcher

When Kurt Moser and Barbara Holzknecht create their timeless photographs of the Dolomites, conditions need to be flawless – yet the images themselves remain rich in charming imperfections.

  • October 2018

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The Lightcatcher

When Kurt Moser and Barbara Holzknecht create their timeless photographs of the Dolomites, conditions need to be flawless – yet the images themselves remain rich in charming imperfections.

Kurt Moser spent 30-plus years as a documentary film-maker, travelling from his base in Rome to the most remote corners of the world. His subjects ranged from breath taking nature to battlefields, all of which he captured using analogue camera systems. Kurt grew decidedly uneasy as he witnessed digitisation take hold, his carefully crafted processes giving way to demands for breakneck speed. Suddenly required to submit footage directly to broadcasters before zooming off to his next shoot, he was rarely fortunate enough to see the finished product.

“The pictures simply disappeared; there was nothing left. I grew more and more concerned with what was happening,” Kurt recalls. As skill and craftsmanship were increasingly rejected in favour of sterile automation, he found himself mourning the sheer impermanence of it all.

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“These pictures don’t lie.” Four words that Kurt Moser will surely never forget. After spending several hours photographing an elderly farmer in his studio, Moser was struck by the man’s earnest verdict: “Kurt, I want to tell you something – these pictures don’t lie.” Even now, Kurt still gets goose bumps whenever he recalls how this farmer pinpointed the very heart of his vision.

Be my ‘Baby’

In the end, the answer came to him quite by chance: Kurt was searching for old lenses to add to his collection when he discovered a vintage bellows camera dating from 1907. The seller, who was in his late seventies, had inherited the dust-coated antique from his grandfather and had no idea how it worked. Enamoured with the history and aesthetics of the camera, Kurt nicknamed it ‘Baby’ and began restoring his unusual find to its former glory. Having succeeded in his efforts, he sent a picture of the reconditioned camera to South Tyrolean film producer Barbara Holzknecht. “Very nice,” came the reply. “So what are you going to do with it?” Kurt wasn’t even sure himself. 

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That all changed during a visit to a museum in Munich, where he happened upon an ambrotype created by the mountain photographer Vittorio Sella. “Back then, I hadn’t the faintest clue what an ambrotype even was,” admits Kurt with a grin. “But the picture had me so transfixed, I couldn’t take my eyes off it until closing time.”

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Researching this technique, Kurt quickly realised that it offered exactly what he had been looking for: photographs that defied reproduction and modification.

Trial and error in the lab

Now that the bellows camera was once again in working order, Kurt simply needed a black glass plate, collodion and silver to complete the process. Or so he thought. He recalls his fruitless early attempts with a laugh: “I must have spent five months on experiments in the darkroom.” As his difficulties grew, so too did his respect for the “true genius” of pioneers such as Vittorio Sella. “How could it be that photographers back in 1850 were able to create ambrotypes at 7,000 metres up while braving temperatures of -40°C – and I kept failing?”

Redoubling his efforts, he bought old photography compendia and studied chemical compositions. “Even when I managed to find a recipe, it didn’t work,” he recalls, “until I learned about the vast differences in chemical purity between then and now.” Several months after finding the camera, he at last succeeded in creating his first photo.

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The ‘Lightcatcher’ project

Kurt laid out his plans to Barbara: “I’ve got an idea. And I need your help.” The pair launched the ‘Lightcatcher’ project in 2015, with Kurt aiming to photograph “his” Dolomites using this painstaking analogue technique. Although Barbara was officially responsible for organising and financing the project, she too found herself drawn to the lab. “It was like stepping into an entirely different world. As a film producer, I had spent years on organisational matters while others took charge of the creative process – but once I teamed up with Kurt, I was suddenly at the heart of the action in the darkroom.” 

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By exploiting the unique imagery of the ambrotype, the Lightcatchers hope to immortalise the spirit of the Dolomites. This noble aim has also won them a commission from UNESCO, with the Lightcatchers now responsible for photographing the last remaining inhabitants of the Dolomites as well as the mountains themselves.

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Kurt creates these portraits of the mountain dwellers in his Caldaro studio. A workshop situated within the historic walls of Castel Kampan, this facility was kindly provided to him by Count Michael Goëss-Enzenberg. Tasked with locating the farmers and bringing them to the studio, Barbara frequently has to handle unexpected challenges. “I usually just go to the village tavern and ask around. Once I’ve found someone suitable, they might well say ‘Come back next week, I need time to think about it’,” she explains. “Occasionally, there are some surprising requests – one person wanted to go on a tour through Bolzano as they’d been away from the city for so long.” And something all the farmers share is a sense of puzzlement as to why anyone should wish to photograph them.

Five minutes for eternity

The mountain pictures prove especially tricky: although the technique itself is certainly robust, it demands thorough planning and maximum precision at the crucial moment. “The high material costs alone are enough to prevent us from simply heading off and taking photographs. I had to spell that out to Kurt in the early days,” grins Barbara, whose project management brief also includes responsibility for the finances.

Barbara and Kurt therefore drive around the Dolomites for days at a time, scouting out potential locations offering the right incidence of light and ideal backdrops. “After Kurt finds the perfect site for the next shoot, I note down all the details and consider additional aspects – such as whether we need a key to use the access road,” Barbara states. 

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Knowing that conditions have to be absolutely perfect for every shoot, Kurt makes sure to mix the collodion himself. “I have to account for each individual aspect,” he explains. “The subject itself, the altitude, the temperature, the humidity: all these have an impact on the silver layer and thus the end product.”

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Once everything is ready and the weather is set fair, the pair drive to the mountain in their delivery van. Kurt confirms that the target position is already set in stone: “I always have a precise mental image of the picture before we even set off.” It is also essential that the van be parked no more than a few minutes away from the camera. “Our van is our mobile photo lab and the whole process would be impossible without it. If we take any longer than five minutes, the picture will be ruined.” 

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Once the black glass has been taken to the darkroom, coated with a collodion solution and rendered photosensitive in the silver bath, the crucial five-minute countdown begins. The carrier is loaded into the bellows camera, exposed, developed within around 10 seconds in the mobile darkroom and subsequently fixed. If the entire process from the silver bath to the development of the picture takes longer than five minutes, then the wet plate will dry out. “But as we discovered by chance last winter, you have a little extra time if the plate freezes up,” smiles Kurt. 

A sixth sense for invisible light

Despite these thorough preparations, it is difficult to predict how the resulting images will appear. Even if every stage of the process is perfect, the mysterious play of ultraviolet light on the carrier means that the ambrotypes are always full of surprises. While UV light is invisible to the naked eye, Kurt has acquired a sixth sense for anticipating its effects. “The moment of truth has to wait until the fixing bath, where the picture slowly comes into view,” explains Kurt, whose command of the process continues to grow with every project. “Now that I’ve been working with this technique for three years, I find it much easier to play around with the level of sharpness, the exposure time and the development of the photos.” This even extends to deliberately adding ‘mistakes’ to his images. “The picture doesn’t need to be perfect, it needs to be unique,” he enthuses. “I want people to know they’re looking at an ambrotype.”

Lady in Red

The pair recently celebrated the arrival of ‘Lady in Red’, a new camera purpose-built for the Dolomites. “We wanted to stop putting our vintage ‘Baby’ through so many gruelling trips into the mountains,” says Barbara, “so we looked for an alternative.” This innovative solution was built in collaboration with Simon and Andreas, two students from Max Valier technical high school for whom ‘Lady in Red’ served as their final project. Featuring a larger format and a range of adjustment options, the camera pushes the boundaries of landscape photography using ambrotypes.

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As the larger plate means that there is extra potential for things to go wrong, even greater precision is now required. “To be perfectly honest, I never thought I would be in a position to work with such a format,” notes Kurt. In another thrilling development, the Lightcatchers will be exhibiting their works at the Berlin Museum of Photography in 2020. 

The quest for truth

“But is it real?” This is always the first question that Kurt asks himself when he sees a photograph, especially on social media. Digital images can of course be beautiful, he muses, but are they authentic?

Even though the Lightcatchers realise that ambrotypes are not perfect photographs, this is the last thing on their mind. “These pictures boast a special form of imagery that is entirely their own. As they can’t be manipulated, there is no need to worry about whether they are real or not,” he laughs, delighting in the blemishes that lend his shots their character. And both Lightcatchers remain steadfast in their beliefs: “In an age when pictures can be edited and reproduced at will, these unique creations are utterly priceless.”

Text: Marlene Lobis
Transcreation: Covi, Wurzer & Partner - Die Sprachdienstleister
Photographs: Ivo Corrà
Video: Miramonte Film/Elisa Nicoli