Wet Plate: A Potted History

On Mark Tucker‘s blog, I’ve just stumbled across a potted history of the wet plate collodion process by George Eastman House.

The original work of the 1850s is often so beautiful. Some of it is shown in their short video, not least a stunning glass negative of an American steam locomotive.

During the commentary, the narrator mentions one of the aspects that I love about wet plate — that each one has a narrative derived from the very hand of the photographer. Every part of a wet plate tells a story in some way, whether it’s to do with the content or the process.

Lovely to see the famous image of Roger Fenton’s Photographic Van featured too.

Anyway, enjoy a few moments with this…

Sketch for a Darkbox

A year ago, I wouldn’t have imagined writing a post like this…

I’m now very close to making wet plates under my own steam and very excited about it too. It’s taken months of planning, research and patient gathering of the necessary paraphernalia.

I’ve got a beautiful camera lined up — a mahogany, brass-bound Thornton & Pickard half plate camera made around 1905 — as well as a plethora of knick knacks, largely sourced by trawling the web, not least eBay.

I mentioned in my last post that my mind is often whirring so, for years now, I’ve kept a detailed notebook for ideas and manifestation.

It’s a great way for me to release my mind of the burden of so much thinking — if you don’t keep a notebook yourself, I thoroughly recommend it!

If nothing else, it’s really satisfying to flick back through it and see the birth of new ideas that have since come to fruition.

Now, to make wet plates in the field, I’m going to need some kind of mobile darkroom facility. A bit like this but not quite like this:

dark tent, wet plate collodion, photography

Tente de photographe

Over time, I expect to create many incarnations of varying sizes ranging from boxes to vehicles. However, for now, I need something that’s suitable for half plate (4.75 x 6.5″).

Towards the start of the year, after seeing a Bastard Box in the superb Facebook Group, Collodion Bastards, I started thinking about ideas for my own darkbox.

Finally, this week, construction of the prototype is underway. I’ve never been too good at drawing, but I’ll share one of my sketches with you anyway so you can see how(ish) it will look…

Wet Plate Collodion, darkbox, sketch

22nd January 2014 — sketching ideas for my first wet plate collodion darkbox…

Here are some basic specifications:

  • 75 x 41 x 45cm;
  • Plywood construction;
  • White interior;
  • Rubylith windows on three sides and in the lid;
  • Dark sleeves in one of the long sides (adapted from an old changing bag);
  • Polyethylene catch-all drip tray in the base;
  • Interior LED strips behind Rubylith for added illumination when required.

Next up, photographs of the finished item. If you like what you see, I’m sure we’ll be happy to take commissions..!

One Night Stand

Bleary-eyed this morning, I buttered the bread for my boys’ packed lunches.

Like the porridge pot on the hob, Radio 4′s Today programme bubbled away in the background.

Maybe you heard it? Evan Davies was talking over the phone to a reporter about the largest Northern Lights display in England for ten years.

Once again, Evan had missed seeing it — cloud cover or something…

“So, do you think there’ll be a repeat performance tonight, or was it more of a one night stand?” asked Evan.

“No. It was certainly more of a one night stand!” the reporter replied.

If I hadn’t have been there for that particular one night stand (to use their words), I’d have been kicking myself…

— Strange Day

In hindsight, yesterday was a strange day; a day loaded with noteworthy events and coincidences.

Two years ago, I wrote about my first sighting of the Northern Lights, a post that I recently published on these pages.

Grasping a lead from my Aurora-chasing friend, Reed Ingram Weir, I’d headed up to the wilds of Northumberland to be greeted by wondrous sights.

He made a beautiful photograph of the event, one that still makes the news today.

I made the edition prints of it for him and, as a memento, Reed kindly gifted one to me, which I stowed in my plan chest at the time for safe-keeping.

Yesterday, over 700 days later, I stumbled across the print and spent a moment marvelling at it all over again. I took it straight down to Bruce (the framer downstairs from my studio) so I could hang it on my studio wall.

At that point, I wasn’t to know about the events to follow that very evening.

— Achy Eyeballs

Last night, as ever, I had a few domestic commitments. I combined them with a small trip to the supermarket.

Now, I’m a pretty driven chap and sometimes, when I have an idea that I want to pursue, it consumes me like a hunger.

At times, I can find it a little tricky to slow my mind down and relax. Sometimes, I even feel the adrenalin gently building up, creating a dull ache behind my eyes.

The usual cure is to go for a run or walk the dog to break those chemicals down and restore order.

As I wondered around the supermarket last night I felt distinctly odd — really energised and excited. My eyes were aching like mad with just this kind of adrenalin surge.

I couldn’t work it out — all my current ideas are well underway and in-hand. ;-)

I got home, sat at the kitchen table and tried to massage my eyes better. A long dog walk was surely on the cards.

Briefly, it popped into my head that this was exactly how I felt two years ago with all that extreme solar activity. The thought was enough for me to get my phone out and look at the geomagnetic data that we monitor on these occasions, published by the Tromsø Geophysical Observatory.

I couldn’t believe my aching eyes.

Tromsø Geophysical Observatory

I started navigating to the keypad to call Reed and see if he’d noticed too.

He beat me to it and his name flashed up on my screen. I answered the call.

“Reed, I know what this is about.”

“Yes, Jack, I’m standing outside my own home looking at the Aurora!”

The decision was made. Within 40 minutes, I’d rallied four friends from my Aurora List and that was it, we were blasting up the A1 once more.

— Never Say Never

By 11pm, we arrived at my favourite vantage point, high up over the coast with a huge view of the northern sky.

Without the moon, the night sky was very dark and truly extraordinary. We admired the constellations and marvelled at Jupiter’s moons through our binoculars.

And, yes, the Northern Lights were there as a bright mercurial blue — gently pulsing like the light of a sleeping Mac.

However, there was no sensational structure at that stage. The architectural grandeur I’d witnessed two years ago was missing.

My friends, though, had now seen the Northern Lights for the first time, albeit on the third time of asking.

They were happy and all was good. So, at 12:45am, it was time to head home. It was a school night after all.

At this stage, it’s true that I was a little disappointed. I’d now made my third 130 mile round trip without much luck since my emotional first experience in 2012.

As we sped home through the cold, cutting air, I gradually heard words like bright and stronger being voiced in the back of the car.

I glanced in my rear view mirror and — wow — the Aurora seemed to be coming alive in a whole new way.

I pulled over into the nearest layby and we stepped out of the car into a whole new level of cold.

The night freight rumbled by us at close quarters. We constantly had to look away from the bright headlights to shield our eyes and protect our precious night vision.

Then at 1:01am sharp — as the icy air frisked us for skin — the show began.

Aurora Borealis, Northern Lights, Northumberland, North East England

The characteristic needles of light sprung out of nowhere, not as strongly as 2012 but there nonetheless…

Aurora Borealis, Northern Lights, Northumberland, North East England

The folding, fabric-like movement was just about discernible…

Accompanied by our ground-level oohs and aahs, the silent spectacle eventually faded and retreated north once more.

Retreated north until the next time — another occasion, like this, when I hope we’ll be able to say that we were there

A New Device, A New Language, A New Frontier

That’s the claim from photographer Adam Magyar. He’s right, yet still he’s modest.

When this lecture was waved over my screen, it was accompanied by much of the usual cyberbole.

However, my source was sound and of good repute, so I’m glad I gave up 20 minutes of my life to it. I think you will be too…

Chasing Shadows

We find ourselves in the midst of an extremely topical Northern Lights season once again, with comparisons potentially being made to The Great Solar Storm of 1859.

Aurora Borealis, Great Solar Storm of 1859, Boulogne Pier, Northern Lights

‘The Aurora Borealis, seen from the pier, Boulogne’, an etching I found on eBay a while back made around the time of The Great Solar Storm of 1859…

If that were to happen again, it would surely look pretty but it would also wreak havoc in a world that now relies so heavily on an electronic infrastructure.

As I was reminded last night, chasing the Aurora Borealis can be hard work — sometimes like chasing shadows rather than fantastical laser light shows.

The lure of glorious rewards keeps me motivated but, as hope fizzled out once again in the small hours, I’m glad I appreciated my beginner’s luck chasing the Aurora in 2012.

Here’s are the words I wrote at the time on another site o’ mine

 

Holy Aurora! The Northern Lights Venture South

[23rd January 2012]

 

Last night, I received a phone call from my Aurora-chasing friend, Reed Ingram Weir.

Apparently, the facts and figures were all pointing to a stellar show by The Northern Lights.

If I was to finally witness this natural phenomenon, now would be the time to jump in the car and make the sixty five mile journey north on the A1.

It would have been all too easy to settle in for the night on a Sunday evening but I was soon experiencing an intense urge to make the trip.

Aware that digital cameras can pick up early signs of the Aurora much more easily than the human eye, I quickly nipped to the top of the house to photograph the Northern sky.

The giveaway green haze hovering above the Newcastle horizon convinced me that it was time to go and meet Reed on the Holy Island causeway:

aurora borealis, northern lights, newcastle upon tyne, north east england

A faint green haze above the city, the moment I knew I had to drive North…

I grabbed a friend who I knew would also cherish the experience, though neither of us could ever have been prepared for the scene that greeted us.

Nearing the turn-off for Holy Island, the sky had become alive with huge columns of light, folding and weaving like waves of fabric.

Words can barely describe the emotion that overcame me — it was all I could do to keep the car on the road with such a spectacle taking place in the cold air above us.

Vast slabs of vertical green light gave the Northumberland night sky an epic cathedral-like appearance and all for a fleeting fifteen minutes or so…

As we arrived on the dark causeway, I must confess to feeling a little jittery.

The light show was beginning to fade already but it still looked sensational as it receded.  I managed to capture these images while the performance played out:

aurora borealis, northern lights, northumberland, holy island, north east england

Gentle scenes from the Holy Island causeway as we arrived…

aurora borealis, northern lights, northumberland, holy island, north east england

Vertical shafts of light began to appear once more…

aurora borealis, northern lights, northumberland, holy island, north east england

…the sky then appeared to fold and crease like fabric above the glow of Berwick upon Tweed.

In all honesty, the intensity of green captured by my camera surprised me.  However, it seemed to match up with the photographs of others.

When watching this beautiful show, I didn’t see green, I saw a bluey-silvery-grey. I thought that reciprocity failure might have come into play, so I tried some very short exposures.

Yes, the images were very under-exposed but the green colour still prevailed.  Even the ‘quick and dirty’ capture made at ISO 3200 (the image at the top of this post) immediately showed the Aurora-green piercing through the urban haze.

It seems that more intense displays further north, in and around locations such as Tromsø, literally drench the surroundings in a glorious green light.

Thankfully, at times, we were able to see the green for ourselves during pinpricks of higher intensity.

Indeed, as we were arriving, I’ve already mentioned the great slabs of green light standing tall like huge, futuristic, architectural pillars in the sky.

So, this sparked a further spine-tingling question in my mind: When the intensity levels of the Aurora are reduced further South, why is that we observe a bluey-silvery-grey colour, yet we point a digital camera at the Aurora and the intense green prevails?

Is the camera able to render information that we cannot perceive at these lower intensities?  I’m sure there will be answers to this but I simply enjoyed pondering them while standing in that icy cold theatre.

I expect Professor Brian Cox would know the answer. If you know, feel free to enlighten us by leaving a comment in the box at the end of this post!

And so, the curtain gradually fell on the performance. The graceful, pulsing light faded away yet still lingered, maintaining a hold on us and making it very difficult to set off home.

aurora borealis, northern lights, northumberland, holy island, north east england

The performance draws to a close with one last needle of brilliant light.

And let’s not forget the beautiful sky to the South, so dense that Orion (often obvious at this time of year) is almost lost among its neighbours:

night sky, stars, orion, northumberland, holy island, north east england

The stunning Northumberland night sky with Orion in the centre.

Some say that viewing the Aurora Borealis is life-changing.

Would I agree? Yes, without a doubt.

I haven’t been able to shake the experiences of last night from my mind, not that I’ve wanted to.

Furthermore, it’s taken me most of the day in grabbed moments here and there to attempt to put those experiences into words.

I’m still not sure that I’ve succeeded.

As I put my boys to bed this evening, I peered North from the window once more. Nothing.

The Aurora Borealis was gone for the moment but I shall never look at the sky in the same way again, day or night.

-

I love this video clip below, the Aurora Borealis and Australis as seen from the International Space Station.

It seems appropriate to sign off from this post by leaving you with this beautiful footage…

Chapter Two: New Beginnings

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that this video clip had a new relevance for me.

I’ve been asking myself some pretty straight questions recently. As a result, my eyes and mind have been opened up to a photographic sub-culture that I always knew existed but only ever dreamed about — until now…

On Thursday, this culminated in making my first ever glass Wet Plate.

And here it is:

Paul Cordes, Alastair Cook, Jonathan Keys by Jack Lowe

From left to right, 5 minutes in the life of Paul Cordes, Alastair Cook, Jonathan Keys

It’s a portrait of the team who rallied round to share their wisdom with me — new folks in my life to whom I’m extremely appreciative.

You’ll see the plate’s a bit of a mess due to my novice-like pouring technique but it still has a certain something, don’t you think?

Paul Cordes, Alastair Cook, Jonathan Keys by Jack Lowe

Detail from my first Wet Plate (Alastair Cook)

Paul Cordes, Alastair Cook, Jonathan Keys by Jack Lowe

Edge detail from my first Wet Plate — this one’s for Paul Kenny!

Actually, I’m in there too. During the five minute exposure (it was pretty dark), I strolled slowly in front of the lens to make sure I wasn’t left out.

The plate also now features in Bastards’ First Plate Gallery at Collodion Bastards (Wet Plate Work of Questionable Parentage).

My sincere thanks to Alastair Cook, Jonathan Keys and Paul Cordes for their help, great company and for rounding off the year perfectly.

Afterwards, we decamped for cake and coffee at Heaton Perk to take away the taste of collodion in the back of our throats.

Bliss.

With best wishes to everyone for 2014, when there’ll be more to report on these new beginnings…

Kielder’s Golden Darkness

More money may have been spent in one year bailing out the banks than has ever been spent on scientific research (yes, in all fields, ever), but there’s one shimmering product of that research nestled in deepest Northumberland, chest deservedly puffed with pride…

As I cranked up the radio over breakfast yesterday, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing — some really good news.

I joined just in time to hear that Northumberland National Park had finally been awarded Dark Sky Status by the International Dark-Sky Association. In fact, the highest possible accolade — Gold Tier Dark Sky status.

Why is this particularly great news? Because a key Northumberland National Park attraction, positioned very close to the English/Scottish border, is Kielder Observatory.

Coincidentally, right on the night of their big announcement, I’d booked to attend another of the observatory’s legendary Jupiter Nights — my third visit in the last year or so.

Jupiter and Four Moons, Kielder Observatory, Northumberland National Park

Jupiter and four of its moons, captured by ITE — iPhone To Eyepiece ;-)

My companion for the journey, visiting from Korea, had never seen a true night sky. 

Due to the terrible air pollution in her home near Seoul, the most she had ever seen was one or two stars attempting to break through the smog.

So, with such a great facility nearby, how could I not suggest the journey to Kielder to experience the night sky at its finest?

A Patchy Start…

On arrival, conditions were mixed and, at one point, heavy cloud completely obscured the sky.

Through one of the powerful telescopes, we’d managed an early glimpse of Jupiter along with its moons but it would be great to enjoy more.

Thankfully, the biting cold wind parted the clouds, unveiling the night sky — complete with a faint Milky Way and shooting stars to boot.

As the perfect half moon set in the west, the sky became darker and darker, the stars stronger and stronger — a near perfect night to observe the heavens and remind ourselves that we’re a ball of rock tumbling around in organised chaos. A gift.

The Moon, Kielder Observatory, Northumberland National Park

The Moon from Kielder Observatory, again captured by ITE…

A Breath of Fresh Air…

The award of Gold Tier Dark Sky Status is huge for the North East.

Northumberland National Park is one of only a handful of Dark Skies across the globe. Moreover, it’s the darkest sky in Europe and the third biggest Dark Sky in the world.

Gary Fildes can now press on confidently with his ambitious plans, which include a state-of-the-art planetarium (for those nights when the cloud-cover lingers) and the installation of a one-metre aperture telescope.

Not only that, 1500 square kilometres of Northumbrian countryside will now be protected from the vagaries of increased light pollution — any planning applications will absolutely have to take into account the area’s newly-awarded status.

All-in-all, a breath of fresh air to see less being recognised as so much more

UPDATE 12/12/13: NEW PRINT AVAILABLE!

I’ve finalised the size of the print and made it into a beautiful, affordable trinket at 6×6″ on 10×8″ paper — you can find it at the top of the New Prints page.

Order by 16th December and receive it in time for Christmas!