Ambrotypes


 

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Ambrotype by Bryan Hiott.  Photo:  Madge McKeithen

A few years ago, New School writing professor Madge McKeithen gave a workshop for my wife’s Blueridge Writer’s Workshop at Lake Summit, NC.  She posted about her experience there on her blog  New York + Points South.  These are some of my favorite excerpts from that post.

Who expects surprise when a creative couple leaves New York for up-country South Carolina? Debbie Rice and Bryan Hiott made the leap in 2012, friends’ admonitions trailing them — “when you move to a rural place, your mind slows down.” A year later, Debbie has produced two successful rounds of the Blue Ridge Writers Workshop, one at Lake Lure, NC, and this year’s at Lake Summit, near Saluda, NC; she is volunteering at Hub City Press and Bookshop, is writing poetry, and has a treasured routine visiting her 90-year-old father’s nearby home every evening. Bryan Hiott is up to his elbows in the ambrotype photography he loves in a spacious studio north of Greenville, SC, and is teaching photography and art history at three area colleges this fall (two more than last year).

The week-long workshop emphasized interdisciplinary work in the arts and combined writing with music and the visual arts.  As part of the workshop, I made ambrotype portraits of the participants as well as landscape images.

Wonderfully meshed with the week’s creative experience was Bryan Hiott’s photography. To watch him work, to hear him speak about it is to take in a history lesson, an artistic passion, a skilled craftsman’s meticulous attention to detail, and a content practitioner’s deep pleasure. Friday and Saturday, he set up his camera and developer’s materials, made ambrotypes of landscapes and then turned more directly to his current fascination with portraits and photographed each of us at the lake house. To sit for Bryan’s photography is an experience like none I’ve had. First there is the photographer — in this case an engagingly intelligent, serious, and yet very funny man. Then there is the process which he calmly, ably narrates, all the while attending to his materials — the box of a camera with its heavy drape, the plastic pans of chemicals — discussing exposure time, the nature of the chemical baths, the “development” of the final product over the course of multiple steps.  As the onsite developer (another box and drape under the carport, not moving), Bryan interacts with the image appearing; there is a sense of creating alongside the mechanism that is different from a typical photo shoot today.  Holding the pose for the time requested (mine for 19 seconds, best I remember) and following the instruction not to smile (smiles held for the time required can look odd, rarely good, he told us) and experiencing something not of this but of a bygone era, something of Matthew Brady, Queen Victoria, the American Civil War, the sense of being seen and not heard was a memorable experience for a group of the wordy sort.

Our very talented friend, cellist Sharon Mulfinger Gerber, gave a wonderful solo performance on the dock as twilight fell and the stars began to come out.

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Sharon Mulfinger Gerber.  Photo:  Madge McKeithen

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Portrait of Sharon – Wet Plate Collodion Ambrotype (6.5″ x 8.5″)

Isabella Sophie Gerber

Whole plate ambrotype  (6.5″ x 8.5″) of Isabella Sophie Gerber shot in my studio recently under UV light.  An ambrotype is a slightly underexposed image made on a glass plate using the wet plate collodion photographic process.  It appears as a negative until placed against a dark background, which reverses the tones, rendering the image as a positive.

This ambrotype was shot using two six-tube arrays of UV lights.  Each array contained five 48″ 6500K fluorescent tubes + one 48″ blacklight.  I used a 19th century reproduction tailboard camera with an original 1872 brass barrel Ross portrait lens (f/4) made in London.  Exposure time was 10 seconds.

 

Ambrotype by Bryan Hiott (2007)

Ambrotype by Bryan Hiott (2007)

 

This is a 1/2 plate ambrotype I made last fall in the Center For Alternative Photography Workshop, which was led by Eric Taubman and assisted by Keliy Anderston-Staley.  After shooting a few portraits, during the first day of the workshop, I moved outside and worked for a while.  

Visible on this ambrotype are what is known as “lines of pouring,” ridges that form as the collodion is flowed onto the plate and begins to dry.  As this was one of my first ambrotypes, I wasn’t in the habit of rocking the plate or tapping it gently as I poured off the excess collodion.  In later plates, I had the technique down and was able to avoid these lines forming.  Quinn Jacobson demonstrates proper pouring of collodion in the YouTube video below.

The Center for Alternative Photography has examples of images from their previous workshops on the alumnae gallery.  One of my images from Eric’s workshop is included on that page.

 

Historical Comparison of Glass Plate Lines of Flow

 

 

Above:  1865 view of Fort McAllister on the Ogeechee River near Savannah, Georgia (half of a glass-plate stereograph by Samuel Cooley).  Below:  detailed section of Cooley’s image with lines of flow from his plate plainly visible – similar to those on my CAP Workshop ambrotype.  The technical challenges of wet plate photography have not changed in the intervening 143 years.

 

 

 

Quinn Jacobson Demonstrates How To Flow A Plate

 

 

 

 

Ambrotype by Bryan Hiott (2007)  

 

 

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

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