Saturday, January 11, 2014

Wet Plate or Collodion Photography: Old and New

During my recent travels through the internet I became thoroughly intrigued by some amazing images that have been created with the "Wet Plate" process. This is an old photographic medium developed more than a century and a half ago. OK, let me get into a little photo history just to wet your appetite.

The Daguerreotype was the first successful photographic technique to be devised in 1837. It was a cumbersome process that required very long exposures. Calotype photography followed around 1841. Wet-plate or collodion photography was developed shortly after the Calotype, around 1851. Suffice to say that every newer photographic technique has an advantage over the previous process.

Collodion photography wasn't the first system to use glass negatives, but it became the most popular. The use of negatives allowed the photographer to easily make any number of copies of a photograph. I prefer the use of a metal plate with a black substrate which creates a unique positive image. These are called tintypes, melianotypes, ferrotypes or alumitypes.

One of many wet plate photos of Lincoln
Among it's shortcomings, the wet plate process has to be completed within ten to fifteen minutes. From coating the plate and sensitizing it, to exposing and developing it, it all has to be completed while the collodion remains wet; ergo the name wet plate.

Wet plates didn't stay around very long, by 1871 Richard Maddox invented the dry-plate; and that was the beginning of the end for wet plate photography.

You'll find that most early photographs are portraits of royalty, the famous, or the wealthy. Ordinary people would have to wait until after 1880 when George Eastman successfully began mass producing dry-plates.  Eastman Kodak made photography commonplace and available to the masses.

The resurgence of a photographic process, over a hundred and forty years after it became obsolete, is what fascinates me. Realize that everything involved in this process has to be done by the photographer. The plate has to be coated with the collodion mixture by hand. Then it has to be sensitized in a silver nitrate solution. Exposed in a camera it then has to be developed and fixed before it dries up.
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Michael Shindler of Photobooth SF
Think about it, this means you have to have access to a darkroom wherever you shoot your photo. Photographers had to come up with creative ways to devise portable darkrooms, click on the caption above to see a number of interesting darkrooms.

Here's one of my first attempts at making an alumitype. It's a portrait of Michael Shindler, the owner/instructor at Photobooth in San Francisco, where I took a workshop on this method. Click on the image to see the detail that can be achieved with this process.

Go online and google "collodion photography" or "wet plate photography" to see some of the amazing photographs being produced today with this hundred year old process.

I'll keep writing about my discovery of this new/old method of photography...
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