Wet Plate Photographers

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:



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

« Previous Page