August 2008

Into The Ether:  Contemporary Collodion Work, an exhibition which closes today at Reyko Photo Center in San Francisco, is something of a who’s who among contemporary wet plate photographers.  Artists include:  John Coffer, Will Dunniway, N.W. Gibbons, Quinn Jacobson, Robb Kendrick, Kerik Kouklis, Michael Shindler, Joni Sternbach, Ellen Susan and Robert Szabo.  I know Coffer through attending his wet plate workshop at Camp Tintype in May; and I met Gibbons, who makes mammoth tintypes, earlier this month at Jamboree.   Below are a few images from Into the Ether and artist bios from the Reyko Photo Center website.  


Will Dunniway (Glass Negative)

Glass Negative by Will Dunniway


Will Dunniway has been an American history re-enactor for 25 years. It was while re-enacting the 125th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, that Will watched with fascination as John Coffer and Claude Levet worked their collodion magic. As a serious historian, professional designer and photographer, Will knew he was watching the perfect blend of his interests and abilities. He talked with John and in the summer of 1990 apprenticed under him and the late Claude Levet. Since 1990, Will has practiced the art of collodion primarily on the West Coast working in Gold Rush, Old West, and Civil War events.


Tintype by John Coffer

Tintype by John Coffer


In 1978, John Coffer hitched a bay workhorse named Brownie up to a 19th century style darkroom wagon dubbed the “Photographic Van” and criss-crossed the continent for seven years, plying his trade as an old time traveling portrait photographer. This was an experience as unique as the many tintypes he made and sold along the way. In 1985, after more than 11,000 wagon miles and having passed through 36 different states, John and his horse, Brownie, settled down on their own 50-acre farm in the heart of the beautiful Finger Lakes country of up-state New York. John lives in a one-room cabin that he built himself. He lives off the land and has no phone, no electricity, no automobile, and no running water. There, Coffer photographs the livestock, the farm implements, and the annual cycles of nature. RayKo will be showing selections from his Daily Tintypes series; each reveals various aspects of the artist’s existence.


Image by Rob Kendrick

Image by Rob Kendrick


Robb Kendrick, now living in central Mexico, uses the tintype process and other historical techniques in conjunction with collected audio and video to create one-of-a-kind pieces that incorporate other experiences for the viewer. This allows not only for unique photographs, but also forms memories of the experiences he’s had by engaging the subject in other ways. In the end, it becomes an intimate collaboration that connects him to the people he photographs. His most recent wet plate project documents the working cowboy in 14 Western States, Mexico and Canada for the December 2007 issue of National Geographic. The images are collected in a new book, Still: Cowboys at the Start of the 21st Century. At RayKo, Robb will also be showing some surprises that no one else has ever seen!


18 x 22 Tintype by N.W. Gibbon

18 x 22 Tintype by N.W. Gibbons


N. W. Gibbons is a photographic artist and life-long resident of Westport, CT. He has worked in large format non-digital photographic media since the mid-1970s, and most recently has produced work using a number of different 19th century photographic processes. Mr. Gibbons creates very large tintypes and ambrotypes, both as single images and also in diptych and triptych formats. He makes cityscapes and landscapes in lower Fairfield County and nearby New York State, most recently working on an extended project documenting the surprising natural beauty of the Bronx River.

In this clip from The Cruise, a documentary film directed by Bennett Miller, Timothy “Speed” Levitch, an eccentric raconteur who was making a living in the 1990s as a tour bus guide, goes on an amazing monologue (semi-rant) about the insidiousness of the the New York City grid plan.  He sees acceptance of the grid as an act of mindless conformity, indicating a lack of original thinking.


This summer I took a class of my college students from Parsons to Keliy Anderson-Staley’s studio in Long Island City.  I had met Keliy last September when she was assisting Eric Taubman in his wet plate collodion workshop at the Center for Alternative Photography.  In addition to wet plate, she also works in large format color photography; and I really liked the latest series of images she is working on, a project called Off The Grid.     Several of the 30 x 40 C-prints from that series were hanging in her studio.  I was particularly drawn to the images below.  


Access Road Through Paper Mill Land, Jackman, Maine. Kily Anderson-Staley.

Access Road Through Paper Mill Land, Jackman, Maine.


Off the Grid: Unplugged in the Maine Wilderness (2004-2008) documents twenty families who live in owner-built homes without modern amenities such as electricity, running water, plumbing, phones, or computers.  The series includes portraits, landscapes and architectural photographs captured across the four seasons.  As many of my subjects use the sun as their main energy source, my photographs are deeply concerned with light: an outhouse half-hidden in the dark edge of the forest during sunset, light streaming into a cluttered room through a skylight, and bright daylight glinting off a frozen lake.  Labor, wood, ice, and the forest run through the project as unifying visual motifs.  The images were all made with medium and large format color negative film and enlarged by hand to 30 x 40″ C-prints.  

Having been raised in a log cabin like these, I am interested in exploring the tensions between the utopian idealism of my subjects and the physically demanding realities of their lifestyle.  Many of these families moved to Maine during the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s.  Although all of them make use of alternative energies, their ethnic and educational backgrounds vary widely, as do their religious and political affiliations, which range from anarchism to socialism to fundamentalism.  The low-impact, environmentally sustainable way these families live predates the fashionable green movement but can be seen as its extreme manifestation. I see the combination of living close to nature with efficient, solar-driven technologies as a model for future responses to the global environmental crisis.

                                                          — Keily Anderson-Staley


Carrot Harvest, Temple, Maine

Carrot Harvest, Temple, Maine



Root Cellar, Whipple Pond, Maine

Root Cellar, Whipple Pond, Maine



Earthways Founders, Canaan, Maine

Earthways Founders, Canaan, Maine

Ambrotype by Bryan Hiott (2007)  



Ambrotype by Bryan Hiott (2007). Actual Size 5x7. Lens: Darlot Petzval

In the Flatfiles at Pierogi 2000 in Brooklyn, I found an Art Haiku matchbook by Ryan McGinness.  Much in the spirit of Ray Johnson’s mail art, the matchbook was free and was added to the Flatfiles long before McGinness became an art world star.  Irony is not dead after all.  His Art Haikus bash the likes of Julian Schnabel, Matthew Barney and Damien Hirst for the sort of insider art culture knowledge that he is pretending not to have.  Priceless indeed.  The Images below are about three times the matchbook size.  The text would have been difficult to read otherwise.






I got an email today about the Parsons MFA Photography Thesis Exhibiton, which opens tomorrow evening at The New School in Manhattan.  Two years ago this month I completed my MFA there.  For more about this year’s graduating class, check out Parsons Photobook.


Parsons MFA Photography Thesis Exhibition


Wayne Pierce's Wet Plate Photography Studio


Today I read some of  Wayne Pierce’s guide, “To My Patrons.”  It is a primer for his portrait clients on how his studio runs, what to expect during the shoot and what clothing colors they should select to optimize the image.  I suddenly remembered visiting Gibson’s wet plate studio in Gettysburg while I was an MFA student.  Walking upstairs to peek at the cameras, I startled a Civil War reenactor and his girlfriend, who were waiting patiently to have their portrait made. I was embarrassed and apologized, hoping that I hadn’t ruined their time travel experience. I totally understood why Wayne included the rather funny invective against unwanted intruders:



The Photographer cannot perform his duties with ease if crowded with inquisitive, meddling, and talking parties. The lenses do not operate well if the air is saturated with vapor, and the health is impaired in the midst of the mixed effluvia arising from degenerate lungs.


This ambrotype was my first self-portrait using the wet plate process. It was shot late in the afternoon.  There was cloud cover; and the light was fading.  Exposure time was a little difficult to judge; and I recall this shot took about 6 seconds.  A friend helped me by removing the dark slide and lens cap and marking the time.

In making an ambrotype, the goal is to under expose the subject so that the negative is “thin” or faintly discernable. The image will only be fully revealed when placed against a dark background or painted black on the reverse side. Another option for ambrotypes, which I chose for the self-portrait, is to use black glass so that no painting is necessary to see the image.


Ambrotype Self-Portrait by Bryan Hiott (2008)

5 x 7 Ambrotype Self-Portrait by Bryan Hiott (2008)


I fixed the plate with potassium cyanide; and when I began to see the image come in clearly, I was surprised by the darkness around my inset eyes.  It makes me look stern or intense.  The Dallmeyer petzval lens I was using produces optical distortion moving away from the center of the glass; and the result is clearly visible in this plate as a swirly pattern toward the edges.  To protect the collodion emulsion,  I finished the plate with a coat of sandrac varnish after heating it over a kerosene lamp.


 How To Make An Ambrotype


In an earlier entry, I posted jpegs of Quinn Jacobson’s field darkbox made by Steve Silipigni, a wet plate photographer from Rochester, NY.  I have been corresponding with Steve by email and met him at John Coffer’s Jamboree this month.  He brought along his own darkbox made of poplar, assembled with pegs and finished with an English chestnut stain.  I decided to order that exact version for myself.  It will accomodate plate sizes up to 8 x 10.  

The sample image below shows what my darkbox and supporting table should look like upon completion.  As you can see, the silver nitrate bath is sunken on the left side of the box; but placement may be in the center or on the right side of the box if you prefer.  You can get more information about Steve’s work on his website:  Black Art Woodcraft.  


Darkbox By Steve Silipigni Of Rochester, Ny

Darkbox By Steve Silipigni Of Rochester, NY


This particular darkbox was made for a client in Louisiana who happens to be a New Orleans Saints fan…hence the custom fleurs-de-lis design on the side.  The lightproof shroud is lined with a red checkered 100% cotton cloth of heavy weight.   A shelf at the bottom of the table is convenient for holding a plate rack for drying finished tintypes and glass negatives.  

Set up or take down of the entire system can be done in a matter of minutes; and all components will fit in the back seat of my car.  Portability of equipment is historically correct for the wet plate collodion process.  Mathew Brady’s field photographers during the Civil War used a darkbox mounted on the back of a wagon – jokingly referred to as a “What-Is-It?” wagon.  In the image below, the darkbox is situated at the back of the wagon with a shroud draped over it.   


Mathew Brady Photographic Crew Near Petersburg, VA (1864)

Mathew Brady Photographic Crew Near Petersburg, VA (1864)




During the first weekend of August my wife and I attended Jamboree, an annual gathering of wet plate photographers on John Coffer’s farm in Dundee, NY.  Several of the photographers at Jamboree had wet plate cameras made by Ray Morgenweck of The Star Camera Company.  Coffer owns several of Morgenweck’s cameras, which I used during the workshop back in May, and recommends them in his wet plate manual, “The Doer’s Guide.”


Anthony Style Tailboard Camera - Ray Morgenweck

Anthony Style Tailboard Camera - Ray Morgenweck


A week before Jamboree, I had contacted Morgenweck and ordered an 8 x 10 Anthony Tailboard Style Bellows Camera, a reproduction of one of the most widely used field cameras of the 19th century.  It will be made of Honduras mahogany and will include a tripod.  

Ray is making whole plate, 1/2 plate and 1/4 plate kits for my camera back so that I have a range of options; and he kindly offered to make a lens cap for my Dallmeyer Rapid Rectilinear lens in addition to waterhouse stops.  I expect that my equipment will be completed around the end of August.


The following description is taken from The Star Camera Company website:

During the Nineteenth Century, the E. and H.T. Anthony Company of New York City were the Worlds Largest supplier of Cameras and equipment. Unfortunatly for modern Wet Plate photographers, they are no longer in business. But, the design and solid reliability of their Cameras lives on in the offerings of The Star Camera Company. Very popular with both Historic Photographers and Fine Arts Photographers is our Anthony Style Tailboard Bellows Camera. We build this camera in a wide range of formats, from Half Plate to 11X14. The most versitile format by far is the square format 8X10, which gives you the ability to make large format Ambrotypes, Ferrotypes and Collodion Negatives. The camera is designed to accept interchangable lensboards, and three are supplied. You will have the ability to do a wide range of photographic work, depending on the lens you choose to use. These cameras have the solid frame and weight to support any Petzval Portrait Lens as well as the bellows extension to allow long focus landscape lenses. As with all our cameras, the Anthony Style Bellows Camera is priced without the lens, as this is a variable cost. While we prefer to build a camera using a lens supplied by the customer, we can source lenses to suit the needs of the buyer with little difficulty. Please note that this camera is available in either Honduras Mahogany or Cherry (at additional cost). For those desiring something different and unique, rare woods such as Purpleheart and Teak can also be used at additonal cost.


I just bought my first lens for wet plate photography, an f 7 Dallmeyer Rapid Rectilinear.  According to the engraved serial number (51796), this brass barrel lens with a waterhouse slot was produced in 1891.  The glass is in excellent condition and the mounting flange is intact; but the original aperture stops are missing, which is not unusual for a lens this old.  S.K. Grimes in Rhode Island will machine a set of metal stops for about $150.00 to $200.00 (current turn around time is about four weeks).  An alternative would be to make them myself from cardboard and paint them black.  


S.K. Grimes Waterhouse Stops

S.K. Grimes Waterhouse Stops

My Dallmeyer will cover plate sizes up to 8 x 10.  I plan to use it for landscapes.  The next lens purchase will be a petzval portrait lens for coverage up to 1/2 plate, which could also be used for 8 x 10 with some vignetting.  It would be ideal to have a Darlot petzval; but considering how steep prices have become for those, I am considering a Darlot magic lantern lens, which uses the same petzval formula and is much less expensive.  Some very experienced wet plate photographers have told me that they can tell no difference between images produced with Darlot magic lantern lenses, intended primarily for projection, and Darlot portrait lenses intended for camera use.


Made In London (1891)

Dallmeyer Rapid Rectilinear: Made In London (1891)