I am so far behind in blogging, at last count I have 18 weddings and 22 engagement sessions to get posted and I will get them posted. Today though, I have to share with you something that is over 1 1/2 years in the making. It all started with this….
In August 2012 I watched this video for the first time. I was stunned. Completely. So many things seemed to speak directly to me, where I was at in photography, a desire to learn something new and a strong pull to not just be just another photographer. Over and over I watched this video. I even took the audio file of it, put it on my phone and worked out at the gym listening to it.
It was then I started to chase it.
Just a little bit of my backstory first. The summer of 2012 I had so many amazing things happen to me and I was able to witness an amazing growth in my business. Things were good, very good. In the back of my mind I was wanting something to push me more and I was also picking up my camera less and less for me. Both of these things made me nervous. I have read about many and personally know a few, photographers that have just burned themselves out. I already was starting to feel it. So when I watched Ian’s video and when he talked about the digital revolution and how he was just a photographer in a crowd, I knew exactly how he felt. I am not someone who shot very much film and I have hand developed exactly zero prints in my lifetime. Even now after all of this, I have no desire to pick up a film camera. What I did have is a desire for was to do something for me and to challenge myself. However I made the choice then that this was not going to be something I was going to tell very many people about. I wanted to do this for me. I wanted to stretch myself.So I kept this quiet and under wraps this whole time.
I started reading about the 1850s wet plate photographers and I knew I had found something that would drive me. Their stories are amazing, their process were so rarely understood (these early photographers created the term “master of the black arts”, more on that later) and seeing their photographs of families, the old west and even civil war battlefields, it changed everything for me. I could not read enough, I could not watch enough youtube videos, so I made the plunge. I started scouring ebay for a entry level camera to learn on. I found this beauty..
An old Calumet camera most likely from the 1940s. It has a no name lens with a bunch of fungus growing in it and the bellows smell like my grandparent’s basement. I was in love. Seriously. I then worked on sourcing the chemicals and support materials. The amount of stuff I needed and still need, is ridiculous. It was like pulling a thread on a sweater. I bought and researched, bought and researched, bought and researched. Finally the day came in September 2012 when I attempted my first plate.
Fail. Completely. Trying to get your first photograph using the wet plate process, with no guidance, is like to trying to hit a dart board, while blind-folded and your friend keeps moving the dart board and not telling you. I also discovered what the term “black art” meant. Do yourself a favor, ALWAYS wear gloves. Even when you think you do not need latex gloves, put them. The chemicals used in wet plate stain everything they touch and my hands took the worst of it. It looked like I took a sharpie and just colored my hands and it will not wash off. It took about 8 days for it leave my hands and about 3 weeks for it to leave my finger nails. Do not ask my wife about kitchen counter either, that is still a sore subject.
In spite of my failures, I was hooked. Actually I think because of my failures, it made me even more hooked. The things in life that drive you and give you something to strive far rarely come easy. Over the next 16 months or so I spent time here and there working on the process, asking questions in forums and learning my mistakes and how to spot them. Soon I started to see the results but also slowly enough that the cost of wasting all these me plates made think about just shelving the idea. To make a single wet plate photograph you need a host of chemicals. Collodion and silver nitrate to sensitize the plate, a developer and fixing to create the plate, plus the plate itself, which for me was either glass or aluminum. Once you have a plate done, you need more chemicals to varnish and preserve it. Oh and the varnish and plate need to be heated with a heat source prior to being used. While the exact step are not that difficult, troubleshooting them from scratch with no real idea what is right way, was just plain maddening. This what my works bench looks like right now and 95% of it is tied to the wet plate process.
The good news is, is that I did not make you read all of this and have it end with me giving up and moping away. Today I took this photograph. It is small, only 3.25″x4.24″ but simply, I am not more proud of any other photograph I have ever taken. Ian’s said it best “If it was super easy it wouldn’t be so fun.”.
Do not mind the “mean mug”, this is an 10 second exposure so I was paying more attention to not moving than smiling! It is something that was created over 160 years ago, a process that was almost lost to time. It took me over 1 1/2 years to create my first one I would share with others and I have so much more learning and growing to do. The next process has already begun. I have ordered a new lens, I have the plans to build a camera by hand that can do plates up 8″x10″ and I am not planning on stopping at that size. This is not a digital file, a print or even a negative. As Ian said, this is more than a camera, it is a time machine.