WET PLATE is a section dedicated to an antique photographic process discovered in the mid 19th century, which was also a primary photographic method used until the 1880s. It refers to a process of pouring a solution collodion onto a plate of thin iron or glass, then placing the plate into a camera and exposing it to the light and, at the end, developing that plate while it is still wet, which is the reason of naming the process (and our section) “wet plate”. The images resulting from this process can be ambrotypes, glass negatives or tintypes. Although quite a demanding, expensive and lengthy process, wet plate collodion technique is gaining back its popularity among many contemporary photographers.
The term “wet plate” refers mainly to the photographic wet-collodion process, invented by Frederick Scott Archer. Archer, who started experimenting with collodion in 1848-1849, published the full details of the process in 1851, and is thus credited as the inventor of the process, although the use of collodion was also mentioned in 1850 both by Gustave Le Gray of France and Robert Bingham of England.
Frederick Scott Archer, as the generally recognized inventor of the wet plate collodion process, also deserves credit for publishing the full details of the process in 1851 without first patenting it. Patents were a widely accepted practice at the time: for example, in order to use daguerreotype process in Britain at the time, you had to pay a license. Archer’s contemporary, Fox Talbot, even tried to get an injunction against Archer, claiming that wet collodion process infringes on his patented calotype process.
The wet-collodion process can be used to produce various types of final images: ambrotypes, tintypes, or glass plate negatives.
The process consists of dissolving nitrated cotton in ether and alcohol to get collodion (from Greek “to stick”), a flammable, sticky liquid solution, which is poured over glass plates (or plates made from other materials, e.g. sheet metal for “tintypes”). The plate with the thin collodion coating is then sensitized (while still wet) by placing it in a solution of silver nitrate. The sensitized plate is then placed in the plate holder (in the dark, or under a safelight) to be exposed in camera before the coating dries, as it loses sensitivity to light as it dries. After the actual exposure using the camera, the exposed plate has to be developed in the solution of iron sulphate and acetic acid, rinsed and then fixed with hypo or potassium cyanide and given the final wash.
Sometimes the resulting image is also hand-colored, and the final step in creating a wet plate image is usually coating it with varnish to protect the thin collodion emulsion, which is easily scratched and damaged.
Images made on clear glass can be used as negatives, and prints made from such negatives in the usual way, or, more traditionally, as albumen prints.
Images made on black glass are positive images, and can be viewed directly as positives, or ambrotypes. In order to achieve that effect, the back of the clear glass wet plate can also be viewed on black background, or coated with black varnish to make the effect permanent.
The combination of wet plate collodion negatives and albumen prints was the most successful and widespread commercial photographic technique of the second half of the 19th century, until the appearance of gelatin emulsion plates (dry plates) during the final decade of the century.
The tintypes (also called melainotypes or ferrotypes) are a variant of wet plate collodion process, similar to ambrotypes, resulting in direct positive image on a sheet (plate) of sheet iron, blackened by varnishing or lacquering (“japanning”): these were very popular, since they didn’t need mounting and the careful handling of the collodion images made on glass plates. They were also somewhat easier and quicker to make, and thus were very popular with the general public: there were many tintypists (photographers producing tintypes) who worked at fairs, carnivals and other public events in the second half of the 19th century. Tintypes were particularly popular in the USA, where the itinerant tintypists could be found at fairs as late as the 1920ies.
The modern-day revival of wet plate photographic process owes much to renown artists who embraced the technique for various reasons: Sally Mann, France Scully Osterman and Mark Osterman, Joni Sternbach, but also Jerry Spagnoli and Chuck Close, who work with daguerreotypes.
“My experience of war and all the power of emotions resulting from it have forced me to re-question the cause-effect relations of the war for many years, and I realized that it was necessary to confront the past in a completely different way. It was necessary to go back to the origin of the event and re-arrange, image by image, a new, much more realistic form of emotional state on that map of memories.“
"I believe this to mirror a multitude of levels of our experiences as humans. We are made up of our parts—past experiences, triumphs, failures, our distinctly fragmented hopes and desires. Each of these parts being meaningful and separate yet serving to create our greater and distinct whole. The large sprawling views present in many of these assemblages reflect this view, allowing the viewer to explore and even be consumed by the imagery.“
“The deserts of the West have special significance in the history of photography. By the time I became an adult, I began to see that the Arizona desert was far different from the scenery once photographed by Timothy O’Sullivan in the 1860s. I have explored this landscape with an awareness of the photographers who have come before me, and this awareness has led me to pay close attention to the traces left behind by others.“
“Moscow-based fine art photographer Dmitry Donskoy considers wet plate collodion to be the high end of photo art. Dmitry has been shown in lots of exhibitions and art publications, mostly work done on black and white film. He has worked for more than 23 years in advertising and fashion/beauty photography and can draw a clear distinction between commercial and art work“
“It is my goal to capture as many people as I can in this process. Friends, family, loved ones, or complete strangers, it does not matter. I want to share with as many people as possible this beloved process that dates back to 1848. Wet plate photography was such an important medium for expression in the past and I want it to continue to be today. It has been said that “you do not take a wet plate photograph, it is given to you,” and this is so very true.“
“To be honest, when I saw wet plate photography for the first time, it did not leave any impression on me. Boring grey shit with uneven edges. :) That’s what I thought back then … I thought I can do it much better in Photoshop, and I did. Wet plate has it’s own specific aesthetic. It is far away from a common, commercial aesthetic. You have to get to it … and to get to that point, you have to work on your own understanding and feeling of beauty. It is impossible instantaneously to fall in love with Pergolesi. As well as it is impossible to love Brodsky. These feelings develop and come with time. Same story you have with wet plate. At one moment I had the feeling that the format and the content of my pictures were in dissonance. Wet plate photography corrected everything.“
“I invest a lot of time and energy in what I do. I opened the collodion.com forum board over 10 years ago—it’s been non-stop ever since. Charles Bukowski, a famous American poet said, “Find what you love and let it kill you.” No, I’m not tired. This is my passion; you never tire of your passion. I do have some new objectives for 2015 and beyond—but I’ll keep going as long as people are interested in what I’m offering.“
“I believe the things that you are passionate about end up being a kind of therapy for you. This is absolutely true for me and wet plate. It’s a joy, not a task for me. When you do something you love, great things can happen. So at the heart of it, I feel a connection with my work and subjects when I shoot in this wonderful process.“
“Wet plate is of a different era, a different sense of time. Time slows. Sometimes to a meditative state. It has a pulse and rhythm all its own. It engages the maker and the subject. Ones presence is required. It is primitive and difficult, an authentic experience. Not easy to dismiss. What’s not to love? ”
When I found the wet plate collodion process, I felt as if I had found something I've been searching for my whole life. It never dawned on me to look at what other photographers were doing. I was looking for something that expressed who I was and how I see the world. Whatever photography format you choose, I would suggest picking one that lets you create images the way you see them in your heart. Don’t pick one based on photographic trends.
“My role at Scully & Osterman during this period was twofold; to teach public workshops and private tutorials in historic processes and to manage the exhibitions of our own work. Mark and I were also asked to demonstrate the wet collodion process and teach workshops outside the United States during this time, usually in the context of photo conservation. So from 1996 to 2009 we jointly taught collodion workshops in Canada, Spain, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Mexico, Germany and Japan. In many of these places our workshops were the first time collodion had been used since the nineteenth century. It was, however, a little too early for artists in those places to take notice.”
"The wet collodion process never really died. It was used up to the late 1960s in parts of the world for commercial photomechanical work. There have also always been pockets of people working with the collodion process in isolation for different reasons. So, the embers were still plenty warm when we came on the scene. France and I just fanned it to a more healthy flame. In 1995 we began publishing The Collodion Journal, a quarterly that gave us a platform for our research."
“We all know the expression: “I was born in the wrong time.” I think this saying describes us. Some cross-stitch, some make armor, and some photograph on wet plate collodion. Though in the case of ambrotypes and the other old photo techniques, it is the result that is important—the result with its inexpressible plastic.”
„The plates in these series were shot in close vicinity to the apartment. On the way to the subway or the grocery store, I look for things or situations with potential. Days or even weeks later, I come back to take the photograph. I prepare the plates at home, run out with the camera, take the picture and run back home to process it as quick as possible. Depending on the weather conditions, there is 10 to 20 minutes time from sensitizing the plate until developing.“
„I believe collodion is attractive to most people right now because it is the opposite of digital. With digital we can take hundreds of images without much thought. The effort to take a photograph has been diminished to just the push of a button. Instead of spending the day in the darkroom, photographers now spend their time in front of computers. The lack of physical interaction with the photograph has caused many artists to disassociate themselves with the process of making images. Collodion requires the photographer to interact with every step of the image-making process.“
"Wet plate photography is relatively difficult to do well consistently. And by "to do well" in this context, I mean to create plates with good contrast and artifact-free, or "clean." The literature, historic and modern, is replete with "problem solving" recipes for one ailment or another. I have had my fair share of head-scratching problems. Those problems are a frustration when you are trying to work your way through to a resolution, especially when they are spoiling a shoot. But there is also satisfaction in that problem-solving process. No, I would not change a thing."
„That’s a big advantage to working in collodion positives; you can keep working on an image until it’s right. With film, you expose a negative and develop and print it later; in digital people tend to shoot a lot of images and sort through them for the best later. But in collodion, you see each photograph right after the exposure, looking very much like the finished plate. So you can change lenses, lighting, distance, composition, aperture, focus, or whatever on the next plate. Working your way through an image like that can teach you a lot about making photographs.“
„I think most of the people who master a genre won’t tell you absolutely everything. What makes them masters is the experience and that’s not a secret you can tell. There will always be room for experimenting …as long as I live!
In some of the developer recipes for wet plate, some people use sugar (to slow down the process)! Now imagine how many other things you could add to experiment with the formula! Every plate is an experimentation.“
„Making ambrotypes is almost like a ceremony; children usually remain posed and calm, almost solemn. The set-up, the framing, the focus—it is all part of a magical process that captures children’s imagination. They seem to grasp the unique nature of collodion, and that gives a sense of occasion to the whole process.“
"The most exciting was several months later with my girl friend Kristen, trying our equipment and chemistry for the first time. It was with Lauren LW a celebrated Model Mayhem traveling model that was with us. It took me some time to pour a plate well. It’s like balancing a marble ball on the glass.. and moving it around."
"This process existed for 100 years before the digital photography was invented. And due to very different emulsion response to spectrum, together with “some mystical vision” not available for our regular sight, this technology still has lots to say. People are tired of unnecessary details and realism of digital photography. It is always pleasure to eat with a silver spoon in the world flooded by plastic."