A Colorado Photographer Uses Century-Old Techniques to Capture Skateboarders, Park Rangers and Public Lands

Matt Alberts has spent the better part of a decade capturing people’s souls. Based out of a 28-foot airstream and mobile darkroom that attaches to the back of his truck, the classicly trained photographer has been using antiquated technology to create hyper-durable pieces that portray an unmistakable imprint of his subjects’ essence. Using a process known as wet plate collodion, Alberts goes through a rigorous method to create portraits that are charged with emotion and seem to reveal a person’s real core.

Alberts works with sheets of anodized black trophy aluminum. The technique ultimately produces images by rendering silver nitrate to the plate, delivering a final product that is both ghastly and striking in its emotional depth. Using a modern version of the standard 19th-century studio camera — outfitted with lenses from as far back as 1850 — the lensman creates laterally-reversed direct positive images that have a real permanence in a time when photography has become an increasingly fleeting medium. The camera’s sensitivity to UV light captures images that lie beneath the skin — tattoos rarely show up on the plate.

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He was first introduced to photography by his stepmother Ann at the age of 11. “I got in the darkroom and it was over,” said Alberts. In 2000 he moved to Colorado from Philadelphia, eventually opening his first real photography business in Vail in 2004. He initially went the traditional route — shooting weddings and events, quickly becoming known for his adept skills and camera-savvy. In 2011 he took a class from Quinn Jacobson — a Denver-based photographer and one of the country’s leading experts in historical photography processes — where he fell in love with the style that would come to define his artistic trajectory for the coming decade.

Alberts’ desire to use the highly laborious approach was jointly-inspired by several sources. He found inspiration in the methodology itself — despite the time and labor-intensive procedure being a pain, he realized that the task better reflected the reality of his subject. The fact that his fourth great grandfather F.A. Gilmore and his son Lowell Gilmore had both been involved in the trade didn’t hurt either. Alberts says he’s still in possession of 50 or 60 tin-types the father-son team made nearly 200 years ago.

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His body of work called “The Lifers Project” is about skateboarding. Alberts discovered skating at around the same time as photography — even in high school much of his subject matter revolved around the sport. So far Lifers has had three major iterations. In 2012 he embarked on the Route 66 Tour which took him from Colorado to California via the famed original American highway. Along the way, he photographed professional skateboarders, friends and the “family of skateboarding that is greater than just skateboarding.” Everyone involved has dedicated their lives to the craft, many of them being viewed as misfits or running afoul of the law as a result of their pursuit. A crowdfunding video from the before the start of the project gives a good glimpse at both the process and Alberts’ motivations.

In 2013 Alberts resumed Lifers with the Brotherhood Collection which featured a run of tin-types of professional skateboarders shot on the Lower East Side. A sponsorship with Cadillac followed in 2014 and 2015. The Seasons Collection — three separate excursions focusing on snow, skate and surf resulted in two gallery showings, one at Siren Studios in LA, the other in San Francisco. A planned third show in New York was reimagined as a coffee-table book that beautifully captures the elegant, moody and inventive images that make up the series. While his career has focused almost entirely on extreme sports — including shoots with Free Solo’s Alex Honnold — Alberts scope is not limited. He has shot images of the Arcade Fire’s Win Butler, Redman and famed yogi Ryan Leier amongst others.

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The next step in the series will focus on the protectors of public lands. The National Park Series — a collaboration between Alberts, Topo Designs, Fat Tire and the Parks Project — hopes to capture images of America’s greatest national treasures with shots of both the landscape and the people who have dedicated their lives to safeguarding it. The departure from the biggest and brightest in extreme sports may seem strange at first, but the photographer has found a similar level of life-long dedication in the National Parks. Rangers, ground crews and lesser-known die-hards will make up the bulk of the impending series.

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“Every digital photograph is guaranteed to fail,” Alberts rightly noted. The aluminum photographs have been known to survive fires and last multiple centuries. Alberts desire to create heirlooms and bring the art form back to its fundamentals while simultaneously exploring a group without cultural precedent situates Lifers in a liminal space. Timelessly representing people who have usually been defined in a relatively narrow artistic space is what gives the project so much radiance. The decision to include the natural world should help to secure a fuller scope for a project that has already brought the hope of perpetuity in a circle all too familiar with the unstable.

All photography by Adrienne Thomas.