Wet Plate Photographers


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Got to meet Sally Mann at a book signing at Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville, NC

Yesterday, I was so pleased to meet Sally Mann, one of my favorite artists.  She was at Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville, NC to read from her recent memoir Hold Still, and she signed copies of it afterwards.  For over a decade, two of her beautiful photography books, Deep South and What Remains, have been in my collection as points of reference, and I got Hold Still as a gift last year.  It is superbly written.  Most people don’t know that Mann’s first love was writing.  She has an MFA in creative writing from Hollins University.

I have admired Mann’s photography since first seeing it in books, and then seeing it exhibited in New York City galleries.  In a time when most photographers have abandoned film and fully embraced digital image making, Mann remains staunchly analogue in her approach to the medium.  In fact, for much of the last 20 years, she has used the 19th century wet plate collodion process to create her images.  It is a labor-intensive, chemical process that is subject to accidents and contamination that Mann refers to as “serendiptious.”  Each emulsion on glass or metal must be hand-poured.  It is often the accidents of the process that, to use her words, “miraculously transform” an ordinary scene into something incredible.

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The line outside Malaprop’s to see Sally Mann.

Mann has a passionate following among artists and those interested in photography, and this was on full display yesterday.  Her reading at Malaprop’s was standing room only, and many people (myself included) had to wait outside for the book signing.  The line to see her was out the door, stretching down the block and around the corner.  It got longer as the evening progressed.  Driving up from Greenville, SC, my wife and I had been delayed by a traffic accident on I-26, not arriving in Asheville until twenty minutes before the event was to begin.  It was clear from the long line that we had little hope of gaining admission.  Through Malaprop’s window, I caught glimpses of Mann as she read, and could hear parts of what she was saying.

After an hour online, when the Q&A session ended, we were allowed to move inside and form behind those already in the store to have books signed.  I’d brought Hold Still, as well as What Remains and Deep South.  When my turn came to speak with Mann, I told her that I thought I’d overdone it with my enthusiasm.  Mann was gracious enough to sign all three books, and we talked a bit about the wet plate process.  We also talked about a few of the people we know in common  through this archaic process.  It was the sort of thing I wish could have been done over coffee with her for an afternoon!  But as long as the line was and with as many people as there were still behind me, I moved on.

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As an MFA student in photography at Parsons School of Design, I did my thesis work at Gettysburg.  I had been studying the images of the Civil War and was haunted by their tonal quality.  The optics of 19th century lenses, especially Petzval designs, and the time-based aspect of long exposures also interested me, the way a sudden movement would render someone ghostly, or the rush of wind would move tree limbs to change a scene entirely.  It was through seeing both the 19th century wet plate images as well as Mann’s exquisite and emotionally powerful contemporary work with that process that I became interested in learning to do it myself.  I took  a wet plate workshop with Eric Tubman through the Center for Alternative Photography (now called Penumbra Foundation), and later took a workshop with wet plate master John Coffer.

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Image by Sally Mann from Battlefields.  Wet Plate Collodion Glass Plate Negative.

The idea of working very close to home has always been important to Mann, as well as working with the land to which, being Southern, she has always had a very strong connection.  In What Remains, the 2005 documentary about her life and work, she says, “I’ve nothing be respect for people who travel the world to make art, who put exotic indians in front of linen backdrops.  But it’s always been my philosophy to try and make art out of the everyday and ordinary.”  It is no wonder that one of my other favorite artists, photographer William Eggleston, shares this view.  I also agree wholeheartedly with another of Sally Mann’s philosophical points:  that if you cannot photograph the things you love, then you cannot make good art.  This is something I’ve thought about a lot and put into practice in my own art since returning to South Carolina after a sixteen year sojourn in Brooklyn and the Bronx.

My latest tintype portrait work is featured with the work of three other artists in “New Faces 2016” at the Upstairs Artspace Gallery in Tryon, NC.  The exhibition opened on March 12, 2016 and runs through April 22nd.

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At the Opening of New Faces 2016.  Photo Credit:  Anthony Milian

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At the Opening of New Faces 2016.  Photo Credit:  Anthony Milian

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During John Coffer’s wet plate workshop at Camp Tintype  last May, he set up his 20 x 24 camera and gave a brief demonstration of how it works.  It’s just a really big view camera with some movement (front rise and fall).  John mounted the camera on a small wagon chassis in order to move it to nearby locations where he photographs.  The most difficult part of using this camera is, of course, pouring collodion on the mammoth 20 x 24 plate.  Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any footage online of John pouring a mammoth plate; but many people who have seen him do it speak of his technique with awe.

 

John Coffer's 20 x 24 Wet Plate Camera

John Coffer's 20 x 24 Wet Plate Camera

 

 

Coffer in Action With Mammoth Plate Holder

Coffer in Action With Mammoth Plate Holder

 

 

The 20 x 24 camera was made by Ray Morgenweck of The Star Camera Company.  His calls it  “The Mathew B. Brady 20×24 Majestic Imperial Wetplate Camera.”  Morgenweck has been making a wide range of  Daguerrotype and wet plate cameras for a number of years.  He is in high demand; and there is often a waiting period of several months.  So if you order from him, you’ll have to be patient. Oh, and unless you’re John Coffer, don’t even think about asking for the 20 x 24.  Ray will just laugh.  

 

Description of The Mathew B. Brady 20×24 Majestic Imperial Wetplate Camera

From The Star Camera Website

 

All great things are named after significant people, and indeed this camera is worthy of carrying the name of Mathew B. Brady. Possibly the largest wet plate camera available, the Brady is capable of making 20X24 Wetplate or Tintype images. It is built on the pattern of the early 1900’s Cycle cameras, which have a retracting rise and fall lensboard carrier and a front door which folds up and creates a ‘case’ for the camera. This is NOT a camera for those just beginning the process, and indeed this particular camera went to the man I feel who is most able to handle it, Mr. John Coffer of Dundee NY. This camera uses a Dallmayer 30″ Camera Obscura Lens, and future ones will require a lens similar to this in size and focal length. In addition to the rise and fall lensboard, the camera has a bellows tilt adapter on the rear which can carry the plateholder for greater control over the foreground in your images. Available only on SPECIAL ORDER.

 

The Mathew B. Brady 20x24 Majestic Imperial Wetplate Camera

The Mathew B. Brady 20x24 Majestic Imperial Wetplate Camera. Asking Price: $8,700.00.

 

 

 

 

The Mathew B. Brady 20x24 Majestic Imperial Wetplate Camera

Front Standard Retracts Into Camera Casing.

 

 

 

 

Closes Up Nicely And You're Ready for the Airport!

Closes Up Nicely And You're Ready for the Airport!

From the Wet Plate Collodion Forum, I learned that Quinn Jacobson is thinking about holding a wet plate workshop webcast on Skype.  This would be geared to those who might not have the time to travel long distances to attend a workshop and would be interactive so that participants may ask questions in real time.  You can contact Quinn by email if you’re interested:  quinn@studioQ.com or (better) through a form on his website.  He moderates the forum as well; but you will need to register and be approved before you can post any comments.    

 

Quinn Jacobson

             

First, the most important thing is that this would be interactive. In other words, participants would be able to ask questions and make comments. I think I can have up to 24 people on a Skype feed.

 Secondly, the participants would be able to SEE everything from making chemistry, pouring plates, making exposures, development, varnish, etc. and see all of the equipment and details. I’m even thinking about doing a feed from my dark room or dark box to show development techniques and how to judge properly exposed images.

This would be designed for people who can’t get to a workshop but have access to Skype and a high-speed internet connection. I would offer my workshop guide (PDF) and participants could follow along as I show my techniques on making chemistry, flowing a plate, making an exposure, developing a plate,  and varnishing a plate.

So, if you have any interest in something like this, or know someone who does that can’t get to a workshop but wants to see the process and learn how to make the chemistry, please let me know.

I haven’t figured a cost for it yet, but it will be very affordable to “attend”.  First things first, in that order, I need to see if there is any interest and secondly, find a good date/time to do something like this. Remember, I’m on Central European Time (CET) and need sun to make images, so it would have to be a Saturday or Sunday beginning at 0800 or 0900 and would probably last several hours.

Just throwing this out there, your thoughts are appreciated. 

 

                                                                                                                          — Quinn

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.

On August 6, 2006, The New York Times ran a feature article by Joyce Walder on wet plate photographer John Coffer, entitled “Born 150 Years Too Late.”  Walder explored Coffer’s off the grid rural lifestyle rather than his photographic work.  In conjunction with the article, Fred Conrad conducted an audio interview of Coffer and spent some time learning the wet plate collodion process.  Conrad’s tintypes were part of a slideshow that accompanied the audio interview on the newspaper’s website.   

 

Audio: John Coffer Interview by Fred Conrad

 

Tintype by Fred Conrad (2006)

Tintype of John Coffer by Fred Conrad (2006)

 

Tintype of Coffer's cabin by Fred Conrad (2006)

Tintype of Coffer's Log Cabin by Fred Conrad (2006)

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

 

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:

 

ALL ENTRANCES FORBIDDEN !!

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.

 

 

During the last year, I have been learning historic and alternative photographic processes.  This May I participated in a wet plate collodion workshop with  John Coffer on his farm – Camp Tintype – in Dundee, NY.  Coffer is a master wet plate photographer and is widely credited with helping to revive this labor intensive and beautiful process in an era that is overwhelmingly digital.  

Collodion was first used in photography in 1851 by Frederick Scott Archer. He found the composition of collodion – nitrocellulose, ether and alcohol – to be ideal for suspending silver nitrate on a glass plate and allowing a latent image to form when exposed to light. Wet plate was the primary photographic process in use until the early 1880s, when commercially produced dry plates became the standard.

 

Tintype by Bryan Hiott (2008)

Tintype by Bryan Hiott (2008)

 

Coffer’s intensive three-day workshops, limited to four students, are geared to photographers who want to make glass negative images in the field, as Mathew Brady’s photographers did during the Civil War, in addition to other plate types derived from the original collodion process: positives (ambrotypes) and tintypes (ferrotypes). The workshop also includes an overview of historic cameras and lenses, the chemistry associated with the wet plate process and methods for albumen printing, the primary photographic printing process of the late 19th century.

 

Ambrotype of John Coffer by Bryan Hiott (2008)

Ambrotype of John Coffer by Bryan Hiott (2008)

 

In the wet plate process, collodion is poured (flowed) onto a plate of glass or tin; and the solvents must be allowed to evaporate enough to form a slight “skin.”  Then the plate is taken into the darkbox and immersed in a bath of silver nitrate.  Haloids in the silver nitrate will adhere to the collodion and render the plate light sensitive and ready for exposure.  The sensitized plate must be placed in a light proof holder and attached to to the back of an an already positioned and focused view camera.  The exposure is made by removing a metal insert from the plate holder and then – for those working with period lenses – removing the lens cap, allowing light to strike the plate.  

Exposure times are measured in seconds and, in some cases, minutes.  After the exposure is made, the plate must be developed in the darkbox within a matter a few minutes to produce an image.  The plate is then rinsed, fixed with sodium thiosulfite or potassium cyanide, washed and put in a rack to dry.  As a protective measure, a finished plate should be varnished with sandrac varnish, which is flowed in the same manner as collodion.  The plate should be heated until hot to the touch; and the historically correct method would be to heat the plate over a kerosene lantern.  Holding the plate over a high wattage hairdryer will also server the puropse.  

 

Quinn Jacobson Demonstrates The Wet Plate Collodion Process   

 

 

Since John’s workshop, I have been gathering all of the equipment and chemistry I will need for long-term use in wet plate photography. Aside from camera and lenses, for which I am still in the market, the most basic choice that remains is what type of darkbox design to use.  There are many different and innovative approaches to constructing darkboxes for field use.  Some wet plate artists who work in very large plate sizes have gone so far as to retro fit a horse van with all of the amenities they need (it will be a long time before I contemplate such a scale).  Others have made darkboxes out of gatorboard or even cardboard.  It need not be elaborate as long as it is light-tight and provides ample working room.    

Quinn Jacobson has recommended a wet plate photographer in Rochester, Steve Silipigni, who makes a custom darkbox mounted on a table stand with a sunken silver nitrate box (photos below); and I have decided to order one from him.   

 

Portable Darkbox Designed by Steve Silipigni

Portable Darkbox Designed by Steve Silipigni. Photo - Quinn Jacobson

 

Darkbox Interior View - Note Silver Nitrate Tank To The Left

Darkbox Interior View - Note Silver Nitrate Tank To The Left. Photo - Quinn Jacobson