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!

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!!!

Probate Records – Samuel B. Sturtevant

After coughing up a decent chunk of money for copies of Samuel Bevier Sturtevant’s probate package to the Denver County Probate Court, I was annoyed to find out that Denver Public Library has copies of Denver County probate records from 1930-1989. *sigh* I also found out that since his wife, Lotta, survived him, her will and probate is a lot bigger. Well, now I know where I’ll be going to look for Lotta’s monsterous probate package!!

Samuel Bevier Sturtevant Probate, P-21885, Denver County Probate Court, Denver, Colorado.

Sam’s packet was quite interesting despite the hefty copying fees. The most important finds out of these records were verifying family connections and pinpointing where family members were living in the 1960s. I also found out a bit more about Sam’s interests and associations. Lots of nice clues!

Sam’s health had been deteriorating for some time which probably prompted him to write his will. Three months later he died at the Presbyterian Hospital in Denver on November 8, 1960. The last survivor of five siblings, and having no surviving children of his own, Samuel’s will reveals that he remained connected with his Lyckman cousins in Colorado and his two nieces on the west coast.

Ultimately his wife, Lotta, was the sole beneficiary of his estate, but he stated his wishes if Lotta preceded him in death. This simple list provides wonderful insight into the people and organizations that were important to Sam.

  1. Father’s oil paintings to the Boulder Historical Society
  2. House with furniture and furnishings to cousin Vera (Lyckman) Hill of Denver
  3. $2000 to cousin Ruth (Lyckman) Hansen of Fountain, Colorado.
  4. $2500 to cousin Ernest Lyckman of San Acacio, Colorado
  5. $3000 to  cousin Walter Lyckman of San Acacio, Colorado
  6. $2000 to niece Marjorie (Weeks) Leatart of Long Beach, California
  7. $2000 to niece Betty (Weeks) Hursh of Larsen Air Force Base, Washington
  8. $2000 to cousin  Vera (Lyckman) Hill of Denver
  9. $200 to Josephine Norlie (no relation)
  10. $500 to the Social Order of Beauceant of Denver, for the welfare program
  11. $1500 to Epiphany Episcopal Church of Denver
  12. $2000 fo the Ohio Northern University at Ada, Ohio [Sam's alma mater]
  13. $2000 to the Colorado’s Women’s College of Denver, scholarship fund

If any person or organization died or lapsed prior to Sam’s death, remainder of estate would be distributed as follows:

  1. 75% to El Jebel Temple, AAONMS of Denver for the Shriners’ Hospitals for Crippled Children
  2. 25% to cousin Vera (Lyckman) Hill, if living; if deceased 25% to El Jebel Temple for general charity fund

Beyond the typical property and investment listings, one unexpected item I found out about Sam was that he was a stamp collector! While I’m not a hard-core philatelist, I do have a fondness for stamps and the amazing art and history represented on them. Sam’s collection was extensive enough for the appraisers handling his estate to estimate his large collection between $5000 and $6000! After punching these numbers into an inflation calculator Sam’s collection would have an estimated value between $38,200 and $45,900 in 2011!! And that doesn’t count for the variation in the collector’s value of the old stamps. Quite impressive, Sam!

Now that I know Lotta was the sole beneficiary, I hope to find her probate packet at Denver Public Library during my trek there this weekend. Then hopefully I’ll get more details about the lives of Lotta, Sam, and the Sturtevant legacy.

Wooden Postcard…Interesting Find by an Oregon Collector

Quite a few of the historically-minded folks in Boulder know I’m researching Joe. One day I get an email forwarded to me from one of the gals at the Boulder History Museum. The email is originally from a gentleman in Oregon trying to find out more about a painted wooden postcard with “Rocky Mountain Joe” painted on the back. As a collector he was intrigued to know more about this guy Joe.

Image courtesy of Paul Clinton, 2011.

This painted wooden postcard did not immediately compute! He made photos for tourists, not postcards! But as soon as I saw the painting style and handwriting on the back I was pretty much sold. The week or so before I had looked at some of Joe’s oil paintings and it felt familiar. (Watch for an upcoming post about the paintings!) I have also examined many of his illustrations with lettering and the word “Post Card” looked right. Though the smudged lettering and pencil lines makes me wonder how complete this product was. While I cannot definitively say that, yes, this is one of Joe’s cards, I have a sneaking suspicion it really is.

The mountain in the painting is the Mount of the Holy Cross in the Sawatch Range, Eagle County, Colorado. Famed nineteenth-century photographer William Henry Jackson was the first to photograph the elusive snowy cross and provide proof of its existence in 1873.

Image courtesy of Paul Clinton, 2011.

There is no way of knowing if Joe sketched this card on site, but I have a feeling he painted it from another source, such as a print or photograph, rather than taking the long treck to the Western Slope.

This postcard provides another interesting insight into Joe’s business activities. In addition to selling tourists photographic views of the Rocky Mountains and of Boulder County, it appears he also provided the quintessential tourist medium…the postcard.

Research Update…FINALLY!

Since January of this year I have been side-tracked from Joe research. A new job will do that to you! I scored an awesome job at the University of Colorado Heritage Center as the new Outreach Coordinator. I’m doing research, writing, exhibit development, educational programs, etc., all about CU’s history. Besides getting to do what I love everyday, I also have a small, but great office on the third floor of Old Main, the original university building. Joe took quite a few photos of this fabulous structure.

Courtesy of Carnegie Branch Library for Local History. Boulder Historical Society Collection, S-2888

Trying to juggle a new job, finish up freelance research projects, get a small educational workshop business going, and just typical day-to-day living has kept me away from Joe. But no more!

I have been actively  jumping into the deep end again! Woohoo! I have my stacks of folders out, I’m entering info into spreadsheets, making an outline for an article, re-evaluating all the materials I’ve been collecting the last few years, transcribing records left and right, and contacting archives. I’m finally getting a plan together…again.

I’m thrilled to visit the Boulder History Museum‘s storage facility tomorrow to look at some of Joe’s paintings! Before becoming a photographer, Joe learned his trade of illustrating, sign painting and graining from his step-father William Peck. It appears that when he arrived in Boulder he also took on the trade of paper hanging and occasionally produced custom oil paintings.

According to a 1958 Daily Camera article by Forest Crossen, Joe’s son, Samuel, donated seven on his dad’s paintings to the Boulder History Museum. Five are described in the article: three Boulder Canyon scenes and two biblical subjects. I’m not sure what to expect as far as quality. His illustrations range from rough and sketchy to having wonderfully soft details, quite a dramatic difference, so I’m expecting something similar for his oil paintings.

I have also come across several early newspaper articles describing some of Joe’s artwork. His pieces ranged from illustrations which were published in national illustrated papers such as New York’s Graphic, Day’s Doings, Hearth and Home and Illustrated News, to some custom 9×12 foot paintings of ancient Babylon and Rome for Dr. Perry, a professor of ancient History at the university. Anyone who has researched early Boulder history will be familiar with Joe’s style as many of the building sketches in early city directories are his.

On the other end of the research spectrum, I think I have located one of Joe’s surviving descendants! Through public records, obituaries, and Ancestry.com I have located one of his great-grand children. I’m hoping to contact this person soon. Hopefully this individual is cooperative and has interest in sharing details about their family history. I’m keeping my fingers crossed!

Follow-Up Photos

So I took a little field trip to where I think Joe probably died near 64th and Pecos outside of Denver. (See my previous entry about locations and to see maps.)

I was discouraged by a whole mess of construction going on just south of I-76 on Pecos where the old Modern station was supposed to have been located. I didn’t make it near the actual location, so I quickly bailed for the tracks just a short drive north and west.

Not much to see looking south along Pecos near I-76.

The area near 64th and Pecos is still a bit isolated with some industrial buildings, what appears to be a small irrigation pond, and oddly enough, some baseball fields across the street. Improvements were made several years ago along 64th Street so now people can enjoy a nice bike path nearby and singing birds at the pond.

Looking northwest along the tracks near 64th and Pecos.

Since the area along side the tracks was nice and wide, I decided to take a little walk. If the gravel path wasn’t as broad as it was I never would have ventured out. I had no desire to end up like Joe or replay the railroad bridge scene from Stand By Me! No trains rattled by me but hearing numerous whistles in the background gave me an odd feeling.

While there is no way of absolutely knowing  if this is the area where Joe met his death, it does provide a good physical sense of place. There is something intriguing by walking in the footsteps of those who came before us, and if I squint I can visualize and imagine how empty this area most likely was like a century ago when Joe walked along tracks similar to these.

Looking south along the tracks near 64th and Pecos. The bridge in the distance is I-76.

Newly Found Info About the Location of Joe’s Death

So I picked up the book The Kite Route: Story of the Denver Interurban Railroad at my local rockin’ used book store, Black and Read, yesterday. I collect various history books about Colorado, but mostly Boulder and Denver. It’s a neat book about the development and operations of the old commuter rail that ran a route between Denver, Broomfield, Louisville, Boulder, Marshall, and back to Denver.

Not only is it a good general history, but I wanted to pick it up because I know Joe not only photographed the trains but he was killed by one.

Near the end of the book, and appropriately listed with all the rail accidents, is a blurb about Joe’s death. The story goes that after meeting his son Samuel in Denver for the day Joe prepared to return to Boulder that evening on the train. His son bought the ticket but forgot to give it to Joe. On the way to Boulder, the conductor asked for tickets, but Joe realized he didn’t have the ticket and didn’t quite have enough money for the fare. So off the train he went to walk home.

Most newspaper reports state he got off near the Globeville station (just north of Denver near the current interchange of I-25 and I-70). But the description in this book mentions that the conductor “put him off at Modern [station], located near present day Sixtieth Avenue and Pecos Street.” (1) Cool! New info to work with! That’s roughly half way between the Globeville and Westminster stations. What’s really spiffy is that the modern-day rail lines follow the approximate routes from 100 years ago. So I checked out Google Maps, and yup, some of the current tracks are still running in the same area. That puts the location of the Modern station just south of I-76 on Pecos. Obviously more digging in the Interurban Railroad papers are needed to find the exact location, but it’s at least a start!

The approximate location of the Modern station in 1910

What happens to Joe after he gets off the train will never really be known. After Samuel realized he still had his father’s ticket he arranged for a conductor to take the ticket in the hopes he could pick Joe up if he saw him walking along the tracks. Around 11:25 pm, the crew found Joe, but unfortunately they found him about a half mile from the Modern station, dead near the tracks. They took his body to the Westminster station where they contacted the authorities and waited.

Approximate location where Joe's body was found.

After an examination, the Adams County coroner only found Joe’s face bruised and bloodied and a broken left arm. He uncovered no evidence of foul play. The theory is that Joe tried to jump on one of the passing trains, fell, and died of shock on the side of the tracks. There is some speculation that he might have been intoxicated when he made his trek back to Boulder on foot. While there is currently no evidence for this, he had started building a reputation for imbibing a bit too much several years prior to his death. But my theories about that is an entirely separate post!

So these new bits of information are exciting! First I need to find out if the Denver newspapers reported other information about his death than the Boulder papers. I thought I looked at them all, but obviously I must reevaluate that! Next, I hope to locate the Adams County Coroner’s records, that will certainly hold some interesting info. Then I need to find more records about the Denver Interurban to hopefully uncover more detailed maps of the route and stations. I’d love to get a good sense of where this Modern station really was.

I think tomorrow I’ll take a little field trip and drive along Pecos and take some current photos of the sites I highlighted in the maps. I live in the general area so it will be a quick photo shoot. Look for a new post with new photos tomorrow!

(1) William C. Jones and Noel T. Holley, The Kite Route: Story of the Denver Interurban Railroad (Boulder, CO: Pruett Publishing Company, 1986) 133. Other mentions of specific locations are also from this reference.