Sunday metaphotoblogging: Wet plate collodion class

by Chris Bertram on November 24, 2019

Wet plate collodion workshop!

I spent yesterday at a wet-plate collodion workshop. Wet-plate collodion was the process invented by sculptor Frederick Scott Archer in 1851 and, though it became obsolete very quickly, was widely used in the United States to produced cheap tintypes, including during the civil war, and by Julia Margaret Cameron. It was quite a thing to do. First we had to clean our 8 x 10″ plates meticulously using a mix of chalk dust and alcohol and then we practised balancing and moving a marble on the plate so that we’d be ready to spread the collodion suspension acrosse the surface evenly (you tip a pool into the centre and then move it around to coat the plate without going back on yourself). Then the plate gets dipped in a silver compound to make it sensitive and it gets put into a plate holder for a view camera. The view camera (a big beast) is set up and once you are ready to expose the plate you pull on a sheet that blocks the light whilst covering the lens with something (as a makeshift shutter) and then expose for the appropriate length of time. Conditions were poor – overcast, rainy and cold – bad for the chemicals and bad for a process that relies on high levels of UV light, so my portrait (of another class member) here took 35 seconds. And then it is back into the darkroom, pouring on the developer, waiting for the image to appear and then fixing it and washing it (and hoping the delicate emulsion doesn’t just run off down the plughole). It is a direct positive process, but actually you can see the image as positive or negative depending on whether you have a black or white background behind the plate. Great fun! I’ve heard it said that there are more photographs now taken every 5 seconds than during the entire 19th century: I can see why.