Getting My Hands Wet in Joe’s Trade – Wet Plate Collodion – Part 2

I woke up Friday morning, ready to go, and prepared for my brain to hurt by the end of the day. The drive to the studio was quick and when I arrived I found everyone there excited and chomping at the bit to learn!

We did the obligatory introductions and talked about why we were all taking the workshop. Everyone else had much stronger photographic backgrounds than I did, but at least I have darkroom experience and know my way around a camera. I wasn’t worried about getting lost. Quinn spent some time discussing his background and spoke in-depth about early photographers and the history of photography. It was a great overview that gave me a better grasp on how to approach learning about how Joe worked.

The large, open studio was pretty chilly that November morning so after all the intros Quinn got us up and moving around rather than sitting and talking about chemistry. We’d hit all the nineteenth-century chemical recipes after lunch. Quinn just jumped into the deep end and started walking us through the process of making some photos!!

Photo of me taken by Quinn Jacobson, full plate black glass ambrotype, 2011.

I was the first guinea pig to sit for a photo. Like little ducklings we followed Quinn to his portrait set-up near the front window. I sat on a stool to get properly framed and focused. Because these photos can have long exposures you need to be as still as possible. I leaned into one of those old-style head rests to keep my head steady for focusing. At first it felt odd with a lobster-like clamp on the back of my skull, but once I relaxed I knew I wouldn’t have to worry about having a wobbly and blurry head in the final photo.

All set! Jumping off the stool I eagerly walked with Quinn and the others back to the work area to watch the magic unfold. Each one of us sat for a photo that used a different approach. Whether it was a different substrate (clear glass, black glass, or black aluminum) or photographic technique (different lenses or depth of field) we learned how to create various looks that we could play with the next day.

Quinn took us through the entire process:

1. Cut the glass. No matter the size of glass you decide on, make sure it fits into the plate holder you will use in the camera.

2. De-burr the glass plate. This not only keeps you from cutting yourself, but it also creates a little ridge allowing the liquid collodion emulsion to stay on the plate.

3. Clean the plate. A mild abrasive removes any oils or impurities off the glass allowing the collodion emulsion to properly adhere to the plate.

4. Pour the collodion. This is really when you need to double-check your plan of attack  because once the collodion is poured, it’s the point of no return…everything needs to happen quickly since the emulsion needs to stay wet. Pouring a puddle of collodion is easy, it’s the spreading of the emulsion that takes a steady hand. (I get to find that out the next day!) Once the plate is covered, hopefully with no spills, the extra liquid is drained back into the bottle. Now the clock starts ticking.

Quinn coaching a student through pouring collodion on day 2.

Quinn talking through the delicate process of spreading the collodion on the plate, and KEEPING it on the plate.

5. Sensitizing the plate with silver. Off to the darkroom! (Sorry, no darkroom photos.) The collodion should be skimming over ever so slightly as you dip the plate into the silver nitrate bath. Three minutes later the plate is light-sensitive. It’s now ready to leave the bath, get its edges and back dried up a bit, get mounted into the light-tight plate holder, and finally on its way to make an image.

6. Taking the photograph. Sit your subject back into place (I jump back onto the stool), and double check the head rest, subject positioning, and lighting. Think about what your exposure should be (I’m still figuring out how to do this). Since the initial framing and focusing happened before the whole process got rolling, you should only need to fiddle with fine-tuning the focus. Get the black drape over your head, shoulders, and camera, and take a close look at the image on the glass plate on the back of the camera…remember the image is upside-down and backwards. If it all looks good, time for the “film.” As the plate holder gets mounted on the back of the camera, it’s an unnerving and wobbly affair. You can’t help but think the whole camera is out of whack and out of focus at this point, but it’s the only way to do it, and it all works out fine. Make sure the cap sits loosely on the camera lens, pull the divider out of the plate holder, take a deep breath, take off the lens cap, count out your exposure, put the lens cap back on, and place the divider into the plate holder before removing the whole frame from the camera. Once again off to the darkroom!

7. Developing the image. Remove the plate from the holder. Make sure you have the emulsion side up. It’s difficult to believe there is an image trapped in that cloudy emulsion on a simple piece of glass. Under the red light you hold the plate in one hand, a shot glass of developer in the other, take a moment to collect yourself and quickly pour the developer over the emulsion trying to make it in one smooth movement. One pass is usually not enough so the extra developer goes back in the shot glass and poured again. Shaking the plate slightly helps the developer move around and do its magic. In about ten seconds the image begins to appear. The nerve-wracking point is that you only have one shot at creating this image…you need to figure out where the sweet spot is in the development time. There is no magic number, experience is the only way to really understand how to look at the image and know when it’s right. Once it’s where you want it, stop the development with a rinse under the water faucet.

8. Fixing the image. Fixing removes the excess silver from the plate and stabilizes the image. The excess silver makes the image appear as a milky negative. Once in the fixing bath the silver is washed away, the glass clears up, and the positive image reveals itself.

9. The final wash. To finish things up the plate just needs to sit in a water bath for about 5-10 minutes. Then the plate can be dried and varnished for an archival finish.

Check out a second part of Quinn’s interview on Channel 4 to watch the process!

After lunch we went through the seriousness of creating all the chemicals needed to undertake this fascinating art form. We learned nineteenth-century recipes for making everything: the plate cleaner, to the collodion, the silver nitrate bath, the developer, two types of fixers, and the varnish. I won’t go into much detail here since I’m not very knowledgable about chemistry in general. However, the one thing that is important to note is that one of the fixers commonly used in this form of photography is potassium cyanide. Even though it is a weak solution it can still be very dangerous. A bit unnerving to say the least, but the images it produces are incredibly beautiful. There is a safe fixer that produces similar results, so there is another option.

Besides being overwhelmed and excited about this new knowledge and really having a feel for what Joe did for a living, I now have a much better eye at how to look at old photographs. After this day was over I realized two significant things. One is that when you look at a tintype (or an image on dark glass) you are looking at that portrait in a different way than you’d think. Because the image is reversed, you are seeing that person as they see themselves in the mirror. So if you have old tintypes, scan them and flip them in an image editor to see what someone really looked like!

  

 

Two, because the collodion is ultraviolet (UV) sensitive, it reacts to a different range of the color spectrum. To put it simply, the high end of the collodion range goes into UV so areas that reflect UV will appear white in the photo even if our eyes don’t see that brightness. The low end of the collodion range starts dropping off around green, therefore anything that is mainly yellow, orange, or red will appear black. It made me think that the world was a much more colorful place than we assume based on all those old images. Next time you look at old photographs and see people wearing so much black…think again, the clothing might have been much more vibrant and stylish than what we thought!

Day Two of my workshop, coming soon!

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