Wet Plate Photographers


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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


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)

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