“You are doing it just because you cannot imagine yourself by not doing it”, Stephan Kotas, a photographer originally from the Czech republic who found his true call in photography in Indonesia.
Uniqueness and challenge. Passion and obsession. That’s the characteristic that describes him in the best way possible.
Looking like a model himself, and, in fact, being one for a long time, for the last few years he’s doing unique photoshoot concepts and complicated set-ups combining it with his main passion: wet plate photography.
Two main passions in his life are traveling and photography. He started to travel when he was 16 years old. First, it was backpacking through Europe with no money at all. He bought his first camera when he was 18 years old. “It was a trip to Morocco and some shitty film camera that I don’t even remember the name”, Stephan smiles.
Then he decided to travel through Asia where Indonesia was planned as the first destination point. “All I knew was that I want to get here for a while. So I started to learn the Indonesian language back in Prague. I found this old lady who was about 80 years old and who speaks about 15 languages, most of which are exotic, like Arabic, Sanskrit, and Hindu”, he tells. Then he applied for the scholarship from the Indonesian embassy in Prague provided for the students who are interested in Indonesian culture and became one of 50 people who been chosen to go to Indonesia for one year. “I was quite surprised, cos at the moment I had no degree, only high school behind my back”, he remembers. When he arrived his interest was that high that he lived and hanging out with local students only so his Indonesian became good really quickly. In addition to learning language, for a few semesters, he was studying traditional Indonesian art in Yogyakarta State University.
“At some point, I decided to go to Maluku, another island in Indonesia. I took a big ferry boat with 2000 Indonesians where I was the only foreigner, and they all wanted to talk to me. At some point, they invited me to watch a cinema and I was like “Yeah, sure!”. So we came to the theater on a boat and they were showing porno in there! I was shocked cos it’s a Muslim country”, he laughs.
Trip to Maluku became even a bigger adventure than he expected. First of all, it was very remote area, and rarely visited. The civil war just ended a few months ago. And in some time after he got malaria and typhoid there, it took about 2 days till he gets to a town and hospital. “But it was the most beautiful beaches that I saw and I met a lot of amazing local people there”, he tells.
Since he was traveling, he has been doing a lot of photos and sending them to Czech travel magazines to make some money. “I was about 21 when I got back to Europe. And I was almost crying because I knew that I don’t want to live in Europe, so I contacted a travel agency that I was working with back in Jakarta and they flew me back to be a travel guide for the tourists from the Czech Republic”, Stephan tells. He was doing it for 1,5 years. “Then more and more people are started to tell me to try myself as a model. I tried and succeed but I wanted more”, he tells. His dream was to do a travel show and he made it happen. For three years he was a host for a morning TV show called “Koper dan Ransel” at one of the top 3 TV channels in Indonesia. “It was a Saturday morning show and for our segment, it is prime time”, Stephan explains.
But life in Jakarta can be really exhausting and at some point, he got tired of big city life. “It was not only about it but also a few additional moments that come all together and I felt that I want to move to Bali. I was really missing Bali. Same time I got an early midlife crisis that made me think about what I want to do with my life and what I want to really put my energy into”, he remembers.
And it was photography.
Being a model helped his expertise in fashion photography. “As a model you get to work with many different photographers so I had a chance to study their lighting and different styles and approach. There was a moment when I was working as an assistant with one photographer, where I got to learn about the work behind the scene. He showed me, that photography is not only shooting but also it is the meetings with clients, choosing models, all the preparation and setups that people usually don’t even know about”, he explains.
One of his favorite subjects is art nude, landscapes, and conceptual photography. “My main goal is to create unique, strong images. For example, if you shoot a nude girl, don’t just shoot her in some typical place, try to find some really impossible location where no one else will get to”, Stephan explains. And it works perfectly! When you see his pictures, most of the time you have no idea, what’s behind but you can see and feel that it’s not just boobs and beautiful faces. A lot of his art nude work is about a female figure in natural locations. “There are a few pictures that I am proud of a lot. It’s a photoshoot that I did in Scotland with my ex-girlfriend. It was in the Outer Hebrides, a very remote location. It was fucking freezing, so it was quite an issue to make nude photos. An additional challenge is that its full of people. But even after 10-30-50 years, you will look at this picture and you will see beauty. I think there is some kind of beauty that stands the test of time. For me that’s the ultimate goal, that’s the images I wanna create.”, Stephan tells.
For me, being a top photographer means making a photo that will stop you and will make you think “Wow, how did they do that? This is so fucking cool!”.
“Usually, people have no idea about this kind of photography. Wet plate collodion process is the very first photo technique, originating back in the 1850s. It is also the hardest and the most complicated one”, Stephan explains. He had to learn a lot about chemistry and still feels that he is just a beginner.
With the advance of digital photography, the whole market and profession changed. And Stephan decided to turn the other way. Back to old techniques. ”The value of photography as a craft has decreased since it became so widely available. Now everyone has a camera even on a phone, everyone can capture technically perfect images. We‘ve become so used to it. With a wet plate you never know what you’ll get, there are many imperfections and mistakes, blurs, dust, scratches, chemical marks. But this actually makes it special.” Wet plate film only reacts to the blue spectrum of light which creates a unique look, unlike any other photo process. The film itself is much less light-sensitive than modern-day sensors. So the exposure times are from a few seconds up to a minute. That’s also very hard for the model to stand still to get a sharp image.
Another issue is that you need to develop the image straight after exposure before the wet film dries. Which is very complicated here in Indonesia. ”I only have about 5 minutes to create the image from pouring the plate, sensitizing, exposure to development. You cannot take your camera, take the pictures, and develop it later. That’s why I only shoot in here, where is my darkroom”, he tells.
And this is what makes Stephan even more excited about his next goal. “I want to make a portable darkroom, travel around Indonesia, and shoot traditional portraits of local people. With the same camera, just 10 times bigger. Nobody has ever done it before. It is hard, expensive, complicated, and very unique”, he smiles. He wants to shoot with 25×25 inches, which is 60×60 cm. That will give you a good size of photo that you can already put on a wall or display in the gallery.
Another thing that attracts him a lot is that it is one of the very few techniques where you will have a direct positive image straight from the camera. It means there is no negative. The original tintype that you develop is one-of-a-kind object of art, more like a painting. And has a value in the art market.”, Stephan explains. He also does scans and large fine art prints on handmade banana paper.
“I feel that with the wet plate I found my true calling, something that I really passionate about, something that is really unique, and not a lot of people can actually do it. And I feel that I have all the necessary qualities, not only artistic but all the other things to be able to make it happen”, he adds.
I choose to live in here cos at the moment when I freshly move to Bali we were very good friends with Lukas and Martina. I still had some cash after selling my other business and was about to build my house. First I was living in Canggu but then it became overbusy.
In the beginning, I thought that I’ll just build a villa only for renting. But then I saw this place I thought that it will be great just to move here. And step by step I was very into this. I realized that I can have my studio and darkroom here, so I redesigned the whole project on the go, moved here and I love it!
With JD it was very natural, cos we are good friends with Lukas for a long time. And I am a part of the family and kinda part of the District. Actually I’m sure that the golden years of JD will be in the next 5 years — not too crowded, people will just keep coming here, they will find it naturally and it is something like Canggu was about 10 years ago.
This whole pandemic was actually quite easy for me. I would say that I enjoyed it. First of all, because life in this area didn’t change a lot. I shoot at my house and also picked up some new healthy habits for my daily routine. And it was the first time since high school when I actually had a regular schedule.