In a second, between light and dark, BOOM, the magic happens. She's lit up and frozen.

Her blue eyes shocked by flash. Captured, there's nowhere to hide. Her portrait is honest and raw. Calm and intense. Beautiful and affronting.

Or as her father puts it: "She looks like she might reach out of the photograph and stab you."

Papamoa photographer and GP, Paul Alsop, has been compared by the Sydney Morning Herald to Walter White of HBO's Breaking Bad.


Away from the doctor's surgery, he pulls on a respirator mask and becomes an alchemist.
A good-looking Brit, with rosy English skin, blue eyes, crew-cut, and nondescript T-shirt and shorts, he hardly looks distrustful though.

He jokes his neighbours might question that, given there's heady chemical smells and lights flashing from a mobile "lab" in a caravan on his driveway. What he's actually doing is developing some sublime portraiture.

The 37-year-old's hobby is a photographic process called "wet plate collodion", the third-oldest form of photography. It uses buffed glass or tin, collodion and liquid silver to create art.

Epochal images of Billy the Kid or Abraham Lincoln are the most iconic examples of wet plate photography.

From his modern day garage, he's clicked hundreds of portraits, but his favourite is that of his 3-year-old daughter, Sophie. Pinned to the garage wall, it's her piercing eyes that draw you in. Round and white. Intense and fierce. An innocent girl transformed into a formidable image.

"It looks like she's either going to reach out from the picture and stab you [or just stare you down]. It's quite an arresting portrait," he says of the A4 picture, which is also the screensaver on his work computer.

"I showed it to one of my nurses and she went 'Oh my God, what's that? It's horrible, it's horrific.' I said, yeah, I know it is. It's beautiful and horrific at the same time. It's great."

A self-taught photographer, portraiture is his passion - and a serious one. He talks about the dark art in extensive detail. He's unashamedly "obsessed".


He got sick of trawling through hundreds of digital images and, in 2012, travelled to Wellington where, in Peter Jackson's Park Road Post Production facility, he learnt the process of wet plate collodion over a weekend workshop with photographer and the then lab technician, Brian Scadden.

First he built a large format camera, then he converted a 1970s caravan from Kawerau into a mobile darkroom, inspired by the travelling studios of civil war photographers.

"It's the third-oldest form of photography and I'm doing it with modern techniques and modern equipment. I'm definitely not a historian and I'm definitely not a flame keeper of the past. I'm more about the contemporary use of it."

Financially, wet plate collodion is "a black hole" but he never charges for a portrait - "sacrilege" to most photographers. It means he can pick and choose who he wants to photograph.

What makes an interesting subject?

"An interesting face."

Not necessarily a beautiful person?

"No, not at all. An interesting face or an interesting story . . . Children with freckles are just one of the best portraiture you can get. [I love] the lines of life. Eye colour blue comes out really well. The wet plate emulsion sees blue better than red so blue gets exposed and goes white. People with blue eyes often get these ghostly blue eyes."

Every day he sees patients whose faces would photograph excellently, but he never says anything.

"From an ethical point of view, I cannot photograph my patients, but I almost wish I had a GoPro on me shoulder, on me chair, so that when people sat in that seat to tell me their problems I could do a running timelapse of all the people I've seen," he says in his English timbre.

"That would be so cool because I see so many interesting faces."

It won't happen though.

"When I'm making portraits I'm not in medicine mode. I'm in right brain artistic mode. And then I'm at work; left brain, scientific mode."

The fact he can do both, and well, leads me to believe he's pretty clever. He shrugs it off.

"I'm not clever. I just work really hard. There's people that work smart and people that work hard. I've always been the guy who's worked hard."

He sounds pretty clever though.

He grew up in Newcastle upon Tyne and, after leaving school, did a degree in biomedical science. He got a job as a biomedical scientist working in a histology laboratory, before deciding to go back to medical school.

He graduated in 2008, worked for the National Health Service (NHS), then decided to come to New Zealand in 2010. It was perfect timing as his career path in the UK was at a crossroads.

"I was looking at being a forensic pathologist but I thought 'do I really want to spend all day with dead bodies?'"

He decided to make the move and ended up at Thames Hospital working the wards. It gave him time to think about what he wanted to do and he decided on general practice.

He works at Papamoa Pines Medical Centre, where he's developing a medical interest in skin cancer detection and surgery. There is an "art" to reconstructive surgery, he says.

His life revolves around work, photography and family - wife, Joanne, and kids, Sophie, 3, Theo, 1, and labradoodle Juneau, 4.

"I do three things in my life. I go photography, family, work. That's my triangle," he says, drawing imaginary lines in the air. "I've got no other life than that."

His day job can be stressful. "You've got to have some sort of outlet."

Lots of his colleagues are marathon runners or long-distance cyclists. Photography is his pressure valve.

And, while it's just a hobby, it's earning him recognition. He's appeared on Seven Sharp, in overseas newspapers, and has just been awarded the title of Australia/New Zealand's top emerging photographer 2017 by Capture magazine.

He has a collective exhibition coming up on Auckland's North Shore called The Collodion Collective from June 3 to 26.

The recognition is "humbling" but it's "a hell of a lot of work".

Within 20 minutes of taking a photograph you finally get an image.

"There's a whole bunch of stuff that goes on behind the scenes. You've got to make the chemicals, source the chemicals, get all the gear. You only get one shot. Because the amount of light (between 3000 and 9000 watt seconds) I'm using is quite daunting."

He's only too happy to show off the process. Stepping into his mobile darkroom, with a black and white chequered floor, and slightly wonky re-fitted benches - "I failed woodwork at school" - the smell of chemicals causes an involuntary side-step.

He expertly snaps on white latex gloves. Takes a piece of metal and pours collodion on it. A mix of ether and alcohol, it was once used for wartime bandages. As it hardens, he soaks the plate in silver nitrate for three minutes, and turns on a string of red LED tube lights.

"The smell is an interesting thing," he notes. "The more and more portraits I make, the higher I get as the day goes by and the more abstract the portraits get."

He's joking, of course.

Overseas you can buy off-the-shelf kits for wet plate photography but you can't import them into New Zealand. He uses a bit of a "make your own home brew" concoction.

He loads the plate into a film-holder and it's back to the garage, where the plate is attached to the back of the camera and a picture is exposed for up to two minutes. Once the photo has been taken, it has to be developed before the mixture dries.

Seeing yourself appear as the photo develops is a curious thing. Both myself and Bay of Plenty Times photographer George Novak got to experience having our photo taken by Alsop. Watching the negative image turn through to positive is nerve-racking.

There is no ability to correct mistakes. "It is what it is," is Alsop's tag line.

And far removed from today's instantaneous saturation of the perfect filtered photo.

Sometimes there's lines in the photographs or Alsop's thumbprint - "a serendipitous signature." The photo is then taken out into sunshine, washed, and varnished with Kauri gum as a "kind of Kiwi nod".

He agonises over how he's going to light his subject, the story behind the picture he wants to tell. And his chemicals, which, like wine, age, must be ready. It's a fascinating process but he doesn't want it to speak for his portraiture.

"It is part of my signature, my style, but I never want it to be who I am. I'm a portrait photographer and I use the wet plate collodion process to get to that."

He's enamoured by the honesty of the pictures. It showcases "perfect imperfection".

"In the time it takes me to take the photo, people sort of zone out and you lose all the falseness and then that's what comes through, it's the process that draws that out."

At that moment, 3-year-old Sophie, the wide-eyed beauty gracing the garage wall, appears in the doorway of the garage. This little girl won't be a preschooler for long but her age is now forever preserved in an archival photograph.

A pretty special thing.

On Facebook: Paul M Alsop
Instagram: @silver_sunbeams