Passions and Obsessions

Call me ‘Dangerous’

Growing up on the streets—a ‘hampaslupa’—he’s now a game-changing Paris photographer mastering an old, magical medium

Ding Gerrous (Rodolfo Panganiban) in Paris, 2020.

Binotelya (Bottled). Self portrait, wet plate collodion. (All photos from Ding Gerrous’ FB page)

Ding Gerrous’ real name is Rodrigo Panganiban, and it’s a clever pun; “panganib” is “danger” in English.

Ding’s large-format wet-plate collodion images have an unearthly air, a window into an alternate dimension, in the digital age. From a technical standpoint, they are paradoxical: sharp yet unsharp, low in contrast but with vividly high resolution, low in dynamic range but with beautiful gradation of tones. The portraits he takes are every bit as arresting and unique as oil paintings.

Since the time of film, we have become accustomed to seeing images as clusters of grain, now pixels, in the digital age. These images have no such pointillism. The tones are smooth, blending seamlessly into each other in a delicate chiaroscuro. It is an experience akin to seeing through the eyes of a different, perhaps non-human being.

It’s been a long journey for Ding, not just photographically, but personally. He calls himself “a genuine hampaslupa,” and in fact, his previous Facebook name was “Hampash Loofah.” He grew up on the streets, an orphan who ran away from his foster family, begging and scrounging for his meals, and being part of a street gang. He always told me it was more of an adventure for him; he did not see it necessarily as suffering. He did manage to finish high school, and did two years of college at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines before getting kicked out “for activism.”

He joined a street theater group called Dulaang KatigThey were the resident company at Paco Park— literally, as in, he lived in the park with the other members. One of his buddies in the group, Benjie Felipe, somehow got a job with a newspaper, working as a gofer for veteran editor Vergel O. Santos. When Santos joined the newly relaunched the Manila Chronicle as its managing editor, he took along Felipe, who soon found out there was a slot for another copyboy, and got them to hire Ding for it. Ding and Benjie, suddenly, had jobs—and a fixed address. They slept in the Manila Chronicle office in Bonifacio Drive, Port Area, and used the employee bathrooms.

He learned real photography from the camera jocks and darkroom techs at the Chronicle

Ding had handled a 35mm camera before, and knew the basics of picture-taking. With borrowed cameras, he had documented some of the street theater and anti-Marcos protest activities, and even had some of his photos published in magazines. He now learned real photography, including black-and-white darkroom work, from the camera jocks and darkroom techs at the Chronicle, who were kind enough to teach him everything they knew—and even stuff they didn’t know, says Ding with a laugh. His mentors included Jess Fonseca, Dante Peralta, Rudy Sakdalan, and Edwin Tuyay from the news beat, and Art de la Rosa and Bobot Meru from the Features section. They saved “short ends” for him, unexposed frames from the ends of film rolls, which he could use to shoot his own work.

As a young sub-editor, when I went to the darkroom, I always used to complain about the stinky plates of paksiw na isda 

The Chronicle darkroom was a bit of a scene. By about 5 or 6 pm, most of the photojournalists were done with the day’s assignments, and the Art Department artists, led by the legendary Nonoy Marcelo, would join them all in the capacious darkroom, which was both airconditioned and very well ventilated by an extractor fan. In the cool, reddish gloom, they would eat, drink, smoke, chat, and joke about the day’s events. As a young sub-editor, when I went to the darkroom, I always used to complain about the stinky plates of paksiw na isda that people would somehow invariably leave unconsumed on the darkroom sink, right by the fixer tray. Only years later did it dawn on me that it was there for a reason—to mask the smell of other things.

Anyway, it was in this convivial environment that Ding learned his skills. He was soon tagging along with some of the photogs on assignment, and then started contributing for the Monday “human interest” photo on the front page, shot on Sundays, when the regular photographers were on their days off. This was where his experience as a street kid served him very well. He knew the streets of the city, and where to find interesting things to take pictures of.

You’d have to be pretty ancient to remember this, but the Manila Chronicle, thanks to Santos, was the first newspaper in the Philippines to feature the radical new front-page layout dominated by a large photo, with a headline above. Previously, newspapers were almost all text on the front page, with photos running two or three columns, at most. We take it for granted today, but back then, it was novel. The Daily Globe, which quickly copied the format, Newsday, a weekly newsmagazine, and the Chronicle had a rivalry for front-page photography, which was all black-and-white then. Ding was dipping his toes in an intensely competitive field. The Daily Globe had rising star Nico Sepe. Interestingly, Nico Sepe is doing wet-plate collodion today, just like Ding. Ding had brought him his first large-format camera when they reunited in Thailand some years ago.

Ding managed to get several pictures published, for the princely sum of P60 each (about P400 in 2021), and they were good enough that he started to get assignments on his own. A lot of those were with the Features crew, which I belonged to. Shooting for Features was both challenging and fulfilling, as you could introduce a lot more art into it. He had now formally evolved from a copy boy (the politically correct term today is “editorial assistant”) into a freelance photographer.

The Manila Chronicle folded up in the mid 1990s, a victim of politics. The Lopez family was forced to sell their share of it due to a legal ban on “tri-media,” in which no one was allowed to own more than two of radio, television, and print. This is ludicrous today, but it forced them to divest then, and the new owners could not keep it afloat.

‘In documentary photography, you record a subject over a long period. You’re not looking for momentary truth, but how truth changes over time’

Ding went back to the streets, and found work with the Virlanie Foundation, doing documentary photography on street kids. “Documentary photography has a different truth than journalism,” he said. “In journalism, you can hear something second-hand, maybe over the telephone, and you report that, it becomes truth. In documentary photography, you record a subject over a long period. You’re not looking for momentary truth, but how truth changes over time. I immersed myself in it.’

At one point, still with Virlanie, Ding went to Puerto Galera to work with the Stairway Foundation, an allied organization that also worked with street kids. Apart from documenting Stairway’s activities, Ding gave photography workshops to street kids, teaching them both how to take pictures and basic black-and-white darkroom. He then became involved in a rock’n’roll musical theater project with the couple Rolly Maligad and Maricel Montero of the band Coco Jam. This project lasted several years, and the production toured worldwide. It was during this period that he met Elodie Caton, a French NGO worker. They would eventually marry.

Ding moved to France with Elodie around the early 2000s. By this time, he defined himself as a photographer, so he went around doing street photography. He soon found out that photographing marginalized people, like the homeless, was difficult and dangerous. In general, they did not want their pictures taken, and would often attack him, physically.

“You cannot imagine the alienation I faced when I arrived in Paris. I was a hampas-lupa, who somehow learned photography. I had lived on the streets of Manila, so the streets were my element. But poverty here in Paris is different, violent, in fact. You cannot just lift your camera and photograph some homeless guy; he might try to beat you up. I understood, because here, the poor are a minority. In Manila, the poor is the majority, and all the street kids are happy, they feel like Mr. Pogi, posing for the camera. I came from them, so there was rapport.

‘Here in Paris, photographing the poor is seen as some sort of voyeurism…. I nearly got beaten up several times’

“Here in Paris, photographing the poor is seen as some sort of voyeurism. They always mistake me for Japanese, and somehow, it’s worse, ‘some Asian guy with a camera, enthralled by my misery.’ I nearly got beaten up several times.” He decided that this was not an avenue worth pursuing.

At the same time, it was the beginning of the widespread adoption of digital photography, so cameras and film, particularly large-format, crashed in price, as photographers unloaded their inventory to switch to the new medium.

Ding had always been fascinated by large-format photography and alternative processes, ever since his Chronicle days. He would buy photo magazines from the used bookstores in Recto, and read voraciously about the medium. When he got to Paris, his timing was perfect. The film and equipment were historically the cheapest they would ever be.

After getting a feel for large-format using film, Ding launched into his first alternative process, gum bichromate. A lot of his images were from his 35mm documentary files. He enlarged them, film-to-film, to create large-format negatives, which he then contact-printed on aquarelle paper. He soon accumulated enough prints to mount a show.

“I let go of my social realist work, for the time being. I was studying the early French masters, and I was so inspired. I discovered Pictorialism. Here I was, in the place where photography started! I had access to all of this tradition. These processes I am using now are the same ones used by the early Pictorialists.”

Collodion is one of the most complex of these processes, is highly toxic (it involves sulfuric acid, potassium cyanide, and ether), and has the most variables that could go wrong. “I chose it because I must be a masochist,” he says with a laugh, “but really, it’s the challenge.”

Ding felt photography was at a crossroads, and he saw the threat of digital wiping out analog. Researching the ancient processes he had chosen, he soon discovered that no images, not even digital, could match the incredible resolution of large-format daguerrotypes and wet plate processes. It was the aesthetic that appealed to him the most.

Collodion is nitrocellulose, derived from cotton by dissolving it in nitric or sulfuric acid, and in turn dissolved in ether and alcohol. The collodion itself is not light-sensitive; it is merely a very smooth plasticizer that holds the light-sensitive layer on to the glass plate. The root of the word collodion is the French verb “coller,” to glue something. Fortunately, collodion can be bought already manufactured. It is still volatile, but at least it spares Ding the handling of the more hazardous chemicals.

He mixes silver nitrate, the light-sensitive layer, onto it with a mix of salts, usually potassium iodide and bromides. This causes halation, or the formation of silver halides, which bond to the collodion.

There are many possible recipes, based on cadmium, lithium, and other elements. Ding has tried them all, and found that some have very quick maturation, meaning you can use them after three days, but have short shelf life—you cannot store them for longer than three weeks. Others take three weeks or a month to “cook,” but can then be stored for much longer periods, up to four years. When you mix collodion, it is largely clear. As it starts to age, it turns yellow, then golden, then, when fully ripe, red.

Ding taught himself all these technical details, which is pretty amazing, considering he never finished college

There are differences in the images, as well. Longer-aging collodion has more contrast, but low sensitivity, something like ISO ratings of 0.5. Quick-aging collodion is the opposite, more sensitive, with ISO ratings of 1 to 3. These ultra-low sensitivities mean the fastest shutter speeds are at least half a second, and that’s in full outdoor sunlight with the lens open at maximum aperture. More typical exposure times are six seconds.

Ding taught himself all of these technical details through research, trial, and error, which is pretty amazing, considering he never finished college. He sees it as a kind of magic. “It’s a performance, and I structure it that way. It’s my theatrical background. I bring out this huge camera, I cut the glass plates, I apply the chemicals in front of them, I explain everything. Some people even call it alchemy, but it’s really just chemistry. What’s great is that you end up with a physical image, not just ones and zeroes on a drive.”

He has gone on to make a career out of it. A lot of his photography is done at events, ranging from photo fairs to electronic music raves. He has produced hundreds of images, but does not have many in his possession, because each unique shot goes right away to the owner.

Ding’s works were recently featured in Art Fair Philippines 2021, and he gave an online workshop from Paris, taking portraits over Zoom to show the collodion process.

Read more:

Why 2021 Art Fair is crucial to Philippine art scene

About author

Articles

Rafael Alfonso Salvador García Ongpin, or “Apa” has been a reporter, photographer, news anchor, newspaper and magazine writer and editor, actor, TV host (including the Binibining Pilipinas pageant), and TV producer and director. He was the founding bassist of the Blue Rats blues band and was a partner in Club Dredd, the seminal rock club of the 1990’s. After earning his MBA in 1997, he worked as an executive in the hotel, quick service restaurant, travel, logistics, radio, publishing, gaming, property and software businesses. He is a management consultant, book author, magazine editor and entrepreneur in the boat business. He is married to Ana Ysabel Rapadas, and has three sons.

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