Bronwyn Coffeen and John David Mercer pose for a wet plate collodion portrait on their wedding day in Mobile, Ala., Saturday, July 19, 2014. The 8×10 tintype image was produced using a vintage 1896 view camera with an 1880 brass petzval lens.
The technical journey photography has taken me on over the past twenty years has been nothing short of remarkable. I’ve gone from shooting 35mm film on a Canon AE-1 for the Block Jr. High yearbook, to shooting on my first digital camera in high school that had a whopping 1/3 megapixel (yes, one-third of one megapixel) resolution, to clacking away at ten frames-per-second on the latest Canon 1-series digital bodies. While digital technology has allowed me to obtain images that would have been impossible to capture as cleanly on any other format, there’s something about the digital workflow that lacks soul. I can’t hold 1′s and 0′s in my hand. I can’t accidentally drop and scratch a .jpeg file. I can’t smell a histogram.
Last May, I decided to get back to my roots with learning the process of shooting and developing large-format 4×5 film. I’d hoped that the 4×5 process would free me from the ultra-predictability of the digital world, giving me images rich with flaws (yes, I wanted flaws) and organic errors. To my surprise, I discovered that the Tri-X 320 film I was shooting, once scanned, was actually superior to my digital cameras in terms of resolution and sharpness. As for those flaws I’d hoped for? Well, the film images were pretty technically solid aside from the errant scratch or two from loading my holders.
While spending most of that summer ruminating on why I couldn’t mess up film more, I stumbled upon the wet plate collodion work of photographer Ian Ruhter. The ghostly images Ruhter was capturing, filled with cloudy streaks, lines, and vignettes, were exactly what I was after when I embarked on my 4×5 film foray. Interestingly, the wet plate process wasn’t completely foreign to me. I’d previously seen the work of wet plate photographer Robert Szabo at a civil war reenactment I shot in Gettysburg in 2009. At the time, however, I’d written-off the process as something entirely too complicated and dangerous for me to take on. Seeing Ruhter and his team working in their many videos, however, re-ignited my interest in the format, and I knew immediately it was something I had to learn.
Learning the wet plate collodion process from photographer Thomas Gibson at his studios in Lecompton, Kansas, on October 12, 2013.
Months later, I found myself in the middle of the remote Kansas prairie at the studios of Thomas Gibson for a day-long wet plate workshop. Gibson and his assistant took me through the entire process, from preparing the necessary chemistry from scratch, to shooting and developing plates, to varnishing them for a lifetime or more of enjoyment. Learning the technical caveats (of which there are many) of the process, of course, is something that requires far more practice than a day-long workshop can provide, but the workshop put me far ahead of the many beginner’s mistakes I would have undoubtedly made without that training. Perfecting the process is something that takes many years, and working towards that perfection is what is so fun about the art form.
In a nutshell, wet plate photography is a lot like the 4×5 film photography that led me to it. Light sensitive aluminum or glass plates (which you create on the spot) are exposed in the camera, developed using liquid developer, stopped, fixed, and washed. What makes wet plate photography special (and so challenging), however, is that the entire process must be completed within about 20 minutes, depending on the ambient air temperature and humidity – along with the phase of the moon and your current mood, it would so seem. If the plate dries out before it is fixed, the image is lost. This means that the “darkroom” must travel with you wherever you plan on shooting, and makes wet plate a big logistical challenge to pull off. Of course, I’ve never been one to shy away from a challenge!
This new craft has become somewhat of an obsession for me over the past year, one that I will talk anyone’s ear off about who’s willing to listen. Photo colleague and friend John David Mercer was no exception. This past February, John David and I were suite mates in Russia while photographing the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics for USA Today Sports Images. As we sat together at breakfast early one morning, drinking fruit-flavored Lipton teas and scarfing down double-packet bowlfuls of oatmeal, I shared with him my new obsession for hand-crafted imagery.
Just above John David’s burly beard, I noticed his bespectacled eyes light up with interest, as if an idea had gone off in his mind. John shared that his upcoming summer wedding in Mobile, Alabama, was to be held in a complex of 1830′s buildings and brick streets, and that wet plate photography would be the perfect storytelling tool for himself and his new bride. The deal was sealed right there in Valset #2. Just as housekeeper “Peggy” entered to freshen up our towels, I decided I’d be traveling to Mobile to do wet plates on the road!
Remember those wet plate logistics I mentioned? Having to bring the darkroom with you is just the start of the equation. The chemistry necessary to produce wet plate images (collodion, on its own, is comprised mostly of extremely-flammable nitrocellulose) is quite hazardous. You’ll find yourself behind bars if you try and stash any of these flammable, corrosive liquids away in your checked baggage on an aircraft.
Ground shipping your chemicals ahead of yourself (once you’ve received your dangerous goods certification from FedEx), preparing chemistry locally, or driving, are your three options for traveling with wet plate. I chose the later of these three options, with the 14-hour drive between Chicago and Mobile being just shy of my sanity limit for a solo road trip.
The other challenge that I’d have to overcome to produce wet plate images in Mobile would be the climate. Temperatures of 90 degrees or more in July there aren’t uncommon, with humidity levels in the 90% range. Wet plate loves things around 68 degrees with moderate humidity. After extensive research, as well as my own hot weather tests with the format here at home, I arrived at a few tweaks of the chemistry (namely in the developer with table sugar added, of all things) that would allow the format to perform desirably in the Gulf climate.
My mobile Mobile darkroom (See what I did, there?) set up on the street across from the inn. I use a dark box from Lund Photographics (the tent-like structure in the back of the van) to prepare and develop my plates during their light-sensitive stages. Also, ladies, don’t get too excited – that sexy minivan was a rental.
The camera I used for my Alabama wet plates is an 8×10 Star View Camera from 1896, originally intended to be a dry plate camera. I’ve modified the holder to accept wet plates without being destroyed. I’m pretty sure the bellows have been replaced. The lens is a 12″ Darlot petzval from around 1880. Both the lens and camera were purchased on eBay. (Photo by Kevin Liles)
My first test exposure of fellow photographers Kyle Terada (left) and Kevin Liles on the big day, 3 seconds wide-open @ ƒ4. I was thrilled to see a solid image pop up in the developer, and to see that I had conquered the hot and humid weather conditions that threatened the format from working at all. I also discovered that drops of sweat falling from my head in the dark box (the white drip marks to the left of Kevin) would mar the plate, so I had to watch for this throughout the rest of my exposures.
Still, I didn’t know whether things would actually work there until the first test plate I shot outdoors on wedding day! Thankfully, the sheets of Tri-X 320 film I brought as a backup weren’t necessary, and I was able to produce hand-made images for John David and his new wife Bronwyn that will surely be passed down through many generations of their family!
Preparing chemistry at “the darkroom” for the first exposure with the bride and groom. (Photo by Kevin Liles)
In this wide shot of the portrait setup, you can see lots of things going on. I’ve positioned the bride and groom on apple boxes, both to even out their heights a bit, and to place them against the inn in the background without having to place the camera too low. I’ve also braced their heads with c-stands to maintain critical focus (the depth of field of the lens I use is extremely shallow). Above me and the camera, an Alien Bees B1600 strobe in their new beauty dish provided a bit of fill light at the tail-end of the eight-second exposure (fired by hand with a Pocket Wizard). Off to the left, rockstar photographer Kevin Liles flags sunlight off the groom’s jacket and face. (Photo by Kyle Terada)
Following developing, the image appears as a negative on the plate before it is fixed. You’ll also note that, due to the image being shot on an opaque substrate, it is flipped horizontally from how it appears in real life. (Photo by Kevin Liles)
Myself reflected in the fixer tank, excitedly watching as the positive image popped up on the plate. At that moment, I was thrilled that weeks of preparation, along with the long trip, had paid off in a solid image! (Photo by Kevin Liles)
The results of the first exposure. We decided that, for the second one (featured at the top of this post), we’d have John David remove his glasses to help further sell the vintage vibe of the location.
The following day, before heading back to Chicago, I took the recommendation of John David to visit the coastal town of Bayou La Batre, where I made several plates with a haunting nautical theme, something new to me with the format. While there, some locals who stopped to see what the heck I was doing pointed me in the direction of a half-sunken fishing boat, which became the subject for one of my favorite plates from the trip!
All set up the following day for an exposure of boats under construction at a shipyard in Bayou La Batre, Alabama. I liked the way the imposing boats were peeking up from above the gently-swaying plants.
While slightly overexposed, I like the vibe of this plate a lot. The plants swaying in the breeze turned into a blur during the four second exposure.
Just across the street from the shipyard was this abandoned ice house, which was damaged in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina. You can see the drywall inside is missing below a certain height. This was the water line when the storm surge flooded the entire community.
Just as I was ready to pack up and start my 14 hour nonstop journey back to Chicago, Bayou La Batre residents Leanna and Adam pulled up and were fascinated with my camera. As I always do when I’m out shooting, I chatted with Leanna and Adam and answered all their questions. I’m glad I did, because they tipped me off to a half-submerged fishing boat which was just beyond the abandoned ice house I’d just shot. Without their help, I would have never known the boat was there. Some photographers I know blow people off who approach them while they’re working, which is foolish. You never know who you’re talking to or how they might help you!
After cautiously driving the van down a soft, sandy access road, I came across the Ladyhawk, who’s fishing days are long-gone! I immediately set up the darkroom once again and prepared to make some more plates. “The drive home can wait!”
The dock across from the Ladyhawk where I’d end up shooting from was sketchy to say the least. Yes, that’s concrete sagging like paper.
The first plate I shot was accidentally flipped out of my hand and onto my arm by the wind as I poured the collodion (you can see the imprint of my arm running diagonally across the center of the plate). While I could have scrapped this one and tried again, I’ve learned that “mistakes” with the wet plate format often produce the coolest-looking images! So, I rolled with it!
Threatening clouds started to move in off the Gulf of Mexico, leaving me just enough time for one more exposure.
My final, and favorite, exposure of the Ladyhawk. The intense heat and humidity caused the collodion (which becomes the light sensitive “film”) to tack up and start to dry far quicker than normal, resulting in these ripples across the bottom of the plate. How fitting, though, for a subject that is sitting in its watery grave!