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‘Reset and recalibrate’: Espanola physician documents wilderness journey in ‘Collodion: The Process of Preservation’

Eric Overton looks at photo at Metate Arch. (Courtesy of Eric Overton)

Whether it’s the time spent as a family medicine physician in Española, or his time spent in the studio sculpting or outdoors composing photographs, Eric Overton comes from a place of healing.

It’s no wonder the New Mexico resident took to the outdoors for his latest project, “Collodion: The Process of Preservation.” The documentary is available on Amazon Prime Video.

“I guess it was a desire to reconnect with the natural world,” Overton says of the impetus behind the documentary. “I spent a lot of time in medical training and indoors with fluorescent settings and the chaos of the hospital. You can work 21 days straight and 15-hour shifts. A life of being on call, babies are being born and people are dying, it’s enough to make your head spin.”

Overton packed up his bags – using all of his vacation – and went on a journey into the wilderness with his son. It was an opportunity for the pair to spend time together.

This time was different.

Eric Overton pours collodion over a picture in Indian Creek. (Courtesy of Eric Overton)

Overton decided to use a 170-year-old photographic procedure called wet plate collodion.

Collodion is a yellowish, viscous, highly flammable solution of pyroxylin in ether and alcohol, which is used in the manufacture of photographic film, in engraving and lithography, and in medicine, chiefly for cementing dressings and sealing wounds.

The pair began to capture evocative spaces in the Yosemite Valley with the same tedious, painstaking attention that photographers including Carlton Watkins practiced more than a century before.

The work was quiet, slow and imprecise. It was everything medicine was not.

The images had an imprecision, a raw and haunting imperfection that seemed capable of saving more people than the prescriptions he scribbled a dozen times a day.

“I was trying to get out into nature and be secluded,” Overton says. “I have to have a focus and an intention. The series of photographs in the documentary are called ‘Wild America.’ It’s just really coming from a place of wanting or really needing to reconnect myself to something slower and simpler. It’s a meditation, and it’s not an escape, but it’s a way to reset and recalibrate.”

The documentary captures a fearless and uncommonly vulnerable portrait of American wilderness, our relationship to one another, and the possibility that nature itself may be all we need to find common ground, Overton says.

The film asks the question, “What happens when all we are left with is a photograph?”

It is a reminder of the fragility of art, of nature, and the need to ask ourselves questions.

The film continues as Overton’s son begins to photograph landscapes with an innate sense of wonder and exploration.

It is a transformation not of political achievements, or battles won, but an achievement of what wilderness offers so effortlessly: simplicity, connection, curiosity and presence.

“While I’ve always been a photographer since I was in high school, and did some work for Rolling Stone, I got the idea to get an education and I wasn’t sure what that meant for me,” Overton says. “I never had an intention of practicing medicine in the medicinal sense. I’ve always had a fascination with the body and anatomy and physiology. This became the forefront as I sculpted.”

Overton says the film touches on his process of taking collodion photographs.

“For me, this process has informed the way I do things,” the Utah native says. “The way I interact with my kids and trying to expose them to natural places as they grow up. I had it somewhat. There are so many incredible places in Utah that I had never experienced.”

Overton explores northern New Mexico during his time off.

“(It) has so much beautiful space and clean air,” he says. “The skiing and snowboarding, it’s pretty phenomenal. That’s why the impetus to make the film and creating the photographs was figuring out what it is to connect with nature.”

As production of the film ramped up, the direction started to take place.

Overton says the project evolved from a narrative that would help people connect to nature to showing how to live off the land.

“I wasn’t looking to judge anyone or comment and break it down,” he says of the journey. “I was more interested in listening, and it evolved into looking. Conversation is our best tool, and the minute we lose the ability to communicate, that’s when we worry.”

After spending so much time in nature and capturing hours of footage, the editing process began.

“Editing is brutal, and it’s incredibly difficult,” Overton says. “It’s long hours, and you can go down so many different rabbit holes. One of the things I learned is that you can keep digging and digging. You’re better off editing in pieces. I learned the hard way.”

A silver lining to the process is Overton’s time spent with his son.

At one point, his son picked up a camera and began to capture images.

“This was an important part, because he took a giant step,” Overton says. “We had all the other pieces. By capturing this moment, it was magic.”

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