Getting My Hands Wet in Joe’s Trade – Wet Plate Collodion – Part 1

It was a Tuesday morning and I saw a spot on the Denver Channel 4 news covering local artists for open studio events on the upcoming Second Saturday. I rarely watch this channel but I happened to be flipping through when I noticed a reporter doing a piece about a photographer in the River North Arts District who specializes in nineteenth-century photographic techniques. I watched in fascination and I kept saying to myself, “I gotta interview this guy!” How cool to talk to someone who understands and practices the photography that Joe did for a living.

I looked up Quinn Jacobson’s website to find out how to contact him, and what I found totally blew my mind. He offered CLASSES in how to do this technique!?!?!? NO WAY! The though of taking a class seemed like it would be such an amazing learning AND research experience. Then I saw the schedule…he was offering a class on Friday…as in three days! *Gulp* Could I get in on such short notice? I’m sure he already has the maximum of four people for the class. Well, it doesn’t hurt to ask, right?

I quickly wrote Quinn an email explaining my goals and asking if it was possible to squeeze me in. If not, I told him I still wanted to talk to him until the next time he offered the workshop. About an hour later he emailed back, stating the class was full but there was one person he wasn’t totally sure would be there. He told me to hang on a couple of days and check back.

Argh! Those were an anxious couple of days! I checked in with him again Thursday morning, ready to accept my defeat, and kindly asked when he planned to hold his next workshop. About 20 minutes later, just as I’m leaving for work, I get the email…I’M IN! Since he wasn’t sure when he would offer another workshop and he liked my reason for taking the class, he said he’d squeeze me in!! I was giddy all day.

I knew about photographs on glass plates, but I didn’t know that was called wet plate collodion. I did a little bit of research that night, but still went into the class pretty clueless about what to expect. What I found out, to put it simply, was that this process, developed by Frederich Scott Archer, essentially killed the one-of-a-kind daguerrotype. This photographic technique made it possible to create a positive image on glass against a dark background (an ambrotype), a positive image on metal (a tin type – aka ferrotype) or a glass plate negative for creating multiple prints.

The reason it’s called wet plate is that the emulsion (collodion) needs to stay wet through the entire process; from pouring the emulsion on the plate, to sensitizing it with silver, taking the photograph, and then developing and fixing the image. This gives you about 5-10 minutes to do EVERYTHING!

"Unidentified soldier in Union uniform and unidentified young man sitting on the ground and whittling," between 1861 and 1865, quarter-plate tintype, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C, AMB/TIN no. 2797.

Just think about all those Civil War-era images you seen in documentaries, online, or in your own family’s collection. If they are dated from the early 1850s to roughly the 1880s, the photos were most likely produced using this technique. For those of you familiar with the western photographer William Henry Jackson, he made all of his famous survey images using this process.

By the 1880s the glass plates were mass-produced using a dry gelatin emulsion making the wet plate less common. The new dry plates allowed for more flexibility, no need to develop the image immediately, and allowed for faster exposures.

I was anxious for what the next two days would bring. I got up early that Friday morning ready for a long and exciting day!  Follow my journey in the next couple of posts…COMING VERY SOON!!!

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