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.



john 11.24.19 at 1:15 pm

Thank you. A pleasure to see a non-digital photograph.


Alan White 11.24.19 at 5:07 pm

Fascinating. Thanks so much for describing the process.


J-D 11.24.19 at 8:47 pm

In ‘The Wonderful Story Of Henry Sugar’, by Roald Dahl, collodion was used to seal somebody’s eyelids shut temporarily. I read that story long ago and never thought about what collodion might be, but for some reason I remembered the word. I don’t think I’d ever seen it anywhere else until I read this. So you got me to look up what collodion is.

I’ve heard it said that there are more photographs now taken every 5 seconds than during the entire 19th century

I just watched a short film in which somebody got dumped at a fast-food restaurant and just stayed there for the next week. I completely failed to foresee what would happen next, and yet as soon as it happened it seemed almost inevitable. I don’t suppose it would have happened in the 19th century, but perhaps there would have been some kind of 19th-century analogue? I wonder.


Matt L 11.24.19 at 9:21 pm

Thanks for the post! Its great to know you can still take a class on obsolete nineteenth century photographic techniques!


DCA 11.24.19 at 9:56 pm

Very cool. But “became obsolete very quickly” is perhaps misleading: the wet-plate process was the dominant method until the late 1870’s, at least in the US: Robert Taft’s Photography and the American Scene notes that at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadephia wet plates were most of what was shown, the only competition being daguerrotypes. So all the Civil War photos, and the pioneering photography of Yosemite and Yellowstone, was done by this process, with wagons (or packhorses) carrying everything, and developing done in a tent.
Kind of amazing.


Dr. Hilarius 11.25.19 at 3:15 am

That looks great for a first attempt. There is a huge resurgence of interest in older photographic methods, particularly by artists who want an a unique image. Your mention of temperature and light reminded me of an account by an early photographer of the American West, struggling to develop plates in winter snow. Photography as an extreme sport.


ph 11.25.19 at 3:28 am

Good for you! The effects are magical and have their own beauty. Many thanks.


bad Jim 11.25.19 at 7:22 am

It’s always fun to learn how things were originally done, before they’d been packaged into things you could do at home. The preparation of the film is nothing like anything I’ve experienced, winding spools into a Brownie or a Rolleiflex or a Pentax, but the darkroom wetwork sounds familiar. For all the times I soaked my fingers in developers and fixers, I can easily recall the smells, but not wondering much about how, in detail, it worked. My father and brothers fussed about film and papers but not about chemicals.

The point, however, has always been about getting the best possible picture. Back when chemistry was involved and black and white was acceptable, the photographer was exceptional and, because of the effort involved, images were privileged. Not as much of course as sketches, woodcuts, engravings or paintings, requiring less effort, but still not negligible.

The problem with my scenic beach town is that the coast faces south, so that at noon those posed with the ocean as background have their faces in shadow. Our hills, covered in distinctive chapparal, are to my mind more varied and photogenic than the featureless ocean, and the varieties of lighting offered by those angles more flattering, but the point of a selfie is less portraiture than reporting.


anon 11.26.19 at 12:44 am

Oh wow! Thanks for posting that.

You might also enjoy a printmaking class using carved wooden blocks. Back to basics indeed. Lots of fun. And messy in a different way than collodion.

Comments on this entry are closed.