History of Photography


Whole Plate Tintype (2014) by Bryan Hiott

Whole Plate Tintype (2014) by Bryan Hiott

This is a tintype portrait of three brothers and their sister, who live in the neighborhood near my studio at Taylors Mill in South Carolina.  Since opening my studio there in 2012, I’ve gotten to know these great kids, who are very interested in my wet plate collodion process. They’re regular visitors on the First Friday art crawl and also stop by to talk whenever they see me working.  I’d wanted to make a portrait of them for some time, and I got my chance this week.  This image also appears in the 2014  World Wet Plate Collodion Day gallery – hosted by Quinn Jacobson.  That gallery honors  Frederick Scott Archer, who invented the collodion process in 1851.  Every year on his birthday, collodion photographers around the world make images to celebrate.

 

A 1/4 plate  ambrotype that I made of John Coffer in 2008 appears in the trailer for Artists & Alchemists, a documentary film on artists in the digital age working to revive 19th century photographic processes. (@ 1:01 on the YouTube video). The film will be released this year.

John Coffer - Ambrotype by Bryan Hiott

 

Daguerrotype of Dr. Maximillian LaBorde of Columbia, SC (May 1840)

Dr. Maximillian LaBorde

 

In Partners With The Sun:  South Carolina Photographers 1840-1940, Harvey S. Teal discusses the first photographic portrait made in the state, a daguerrotype of Dr. Maximillian LaBorde who was a a professor of metaphysics, logic and rhetoric at South Carolina College (now The University of South Carolina).   Dr. William H. Ellet, a colleague of LaBorde’s at the college, made that daguerrotype in May 1840.

LaBorde did not enjoy the tedious process of sitting for the long exposure and later recorded his displeasure with the whole experience in his History of South Carolina College, published in 1859.  It seems that Laborde was so unhappy with his own likeness that he eventually disposed of the daguerrotype:

 

When the first intelligence was brought of the brilliant discovery of Daguerre, Dr. Ellet set to work at once and was taking photographic likenesses before the next vessel crossed the Atlantic.  I think I was his first subject – I might say, victim.  He had informed me he was getting up an apparatus, and I was under contract to sit for for my likeness.  When all things were ready, he called, and took me to the scene of his operations, which was in the rear of his laborotory.  The spot selected was one of the sunniest in the “sunny South,” and the day was one of the hottest in a Southern spring.  The reader will bear in mind that the art was now in its infancy, and that the effort of the professor was strictly experimental.  The light was to sketch the picture, and it was conceived that everything depended upon having enough of its August presence.  To make sure of this, a frame of ten square feet was constructed, and upon this was spread a sheet of show white canvas.  I was required to sit with my head uncovered in the hottest sun at noon day, and this frame of canvas was placed immediately behind me.  My situation was about as painful as that of Regulus when the Carthagenians cut off his eyelids, and brought him suddenly into the sun, that it might dart its strongest heat upon him.  How long I occupied the chair I cannot tell, but I know repeated attempts to catch my likeness were made, and that my poor brain felt as if it would burst from congestion.  At last it was announced to my infinite joy, that he had a portrait.  I left my seat with feelings of a martyr.  There was a portrait; but what a portrait!  The eyes were closed, the forehead corrugated, and the expression hideous.  Yet it was a portrait, and the great fact proved that light could paint it!  I preserved it for many years, and though I would not have it to grace the present volume, I would be glad, on account of its historic interest, if it had a present existence.  

 

Partners With The Sun


1/4 Plate Tintype of Abraham Lincoln   

1/4 Plate Tintype of Abraham Lincoln

 

On November 9, 1863, President Lincoln visited Mathew Brady’s Washington, DC studio, where his assistant, Alexander Gardner, made this 1/4 plate (3.25″ x 4.25″) tintype portrait.  Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg address just over a week later. 

By 1863 tintypes had become the most popular and least expensive portrait option available through the wet plate collodion process.  The Lincoln tintype is housed in a hinged leather bound case and is shown under an ornate layer of stamped metal, which was typical of the period.  The interior left side of the case is lined with velvet for for protection.

 

Among wet plate photographers today, there is perhaps no greater lightning rod for aesthetic and technical debate than Sally Mann.  Purists in the medium will tell you that her work is not up to par and is terribly flawed.  Others will say that she is a true artist, who willingly sacrifices some technical precision for the sake of her personal expression – what Mann calls “transformative accidents” that occur on the surface of her plates.  Although in this video, Mann refers to the work of early wet plate photographers as perfect, I strongly disagree.  One need only look at peeling emulsions and comets (black specs due to contaminated chemistry) from plates made in the mid-1800s to assess that accidents have always been part of the process.  The collodion medium is fragile and inherently flawed.  Sally Mann uses the flaws to her advantage, which tips my hand that I think she is an artist.

 

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

 

 

 

 

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