Skye Glass

wet plate collodion process, half plate, ambrotype, large format

Julian Calverley working at Elgol on the Isle of Skye (Half Plate Ambrotype)

Two weeks ago, Julian Calverley invited me on an impromptu visit to the Isle of Skye, a stunningly beautiful wilderness in the far north of Scotland.

I’ve known Julian for a long time, I’ve made his edition prints for years. Now, I was presented with a new treat — to capture him in one of his favourite stomping grounds for a new book being released later in the year.

I could only seize the chance and, thus, the Ambrotype above was made.

No hiding…

Whilst working with wet plate collodion, I’ve come to adore and embrace the fact that everything within a plate tells a story.

Experienced collodionists are able to pore over a plate and know where things went well and where they went wrong, what worked and what didn’t.

For example, the waviness to the left of the photograph? That’s the wind at Elgol trying to have a say, blowing my collodion as I poured it onto the glass in the dawn breeze.

Not only have I recorded Julian working with his camera, I’ve also captured the weather.

So many elements of that early morning are now immortalised with a piece of glass and a box of chemicals. That’s beautiful to me. I love it.

wet plate collodion process, half plate, ambrotype, large format

Pouring collodion… (by Julian Calverley)

Working on location with this process can be physically gruelling as there’s simply so much paraphernalia. It’s a labour of love and you soon find out why there aren’t many people working on location in this way.

However, the rewards for all those efforts are wonderful and even just one or two great plates make it all worthwhile.

wet plate collodion process, half plate, ambrotype, large format

It’s no mean feat working in the field with wet plate collodion…

Online, it’s impossible to relay the experience of viewing an Ambrotype in the flesh.

As I’ve mentioned before, they carry entrancing three-dimensional qualities — almost holographic — leaving me with a sense that I’ve captured a slice of time, that I’ve actually created some kind of time capsule.

In short, the plates are unique, unreproducible and irreplaceable.

wet plate collodion process, half plate, ambrotype, large format

Undercover, probably working some magic… (by Julian Calverley)

wet plate collodion process, half plate, ambrotype, large format

My half plate 1905 Thornton and Pickard Imperial Perfekta — brass-bound mahogany joy…

wet plate collodion process, half plate, ambrotype, large format

Remember ‘Sketch for a Darkbox’? Click on the image to see what I mean…

Wet Plate Gallery

The eagle-eyed will have spotted that I’ve now created a Wet Plate Gallery in the menu bar at the top of the page.

Take a look to see some of my favourite plates so far. Watch this space for more soon and, remember, there’s no substitute for seeing them in the flesh…

wet plate collodion process, half plate, ambrotype, large format

A quick capture by Julian while I made his portrait…

New Course Charted

In allowing myself a bit of thinking space, it’s been a over month since I last posted — a month that has seen the culmination of so much research, learning and planning.

Looking back over previous posts has been enlightening this afternoon. I can see the mindset I’ve occupied at various points over the last two years, points along a path that I recognised as becoming increasingly unknown and further out of my comfort zone.

At times, my heart’s been in my mouth with a sensation that I can only liken to one I experienced as a young boy, the time I was obliged by my swimming instructor to leap from a 5 metre diving board (you’ll never see me do that again, by the way).

I’ve seen and heard clips from luminaries reassuring me that these feelings are a good thing. So, I’ve trusted them and gone with it.

Finally under my own steam…

A little over two weeks ago, it dawned on me that there was no more planning to be done; I was finally in a position where I’d harvested enough paraphernalia and knowledge to make my first photographs using a Victorian process known as wet plate collodion.

I’ve been micro-blogging about the various milestones on Instagram (yes, I’m back) and on my Facebook Page over recent weeks.

The first day was terrible. By the end of it, I was nearly crying into my collodion. Nothing was working but, with a little help from a friend the following morning, it transpired that my problem was simple — my darkbox (portable darkroom) was too light.

I cobbled together some shutters to reduce the levels of light hitting the interior of the box and made this, my first glass wet plate — an Ambrotype — under my own steam:

wet plate collodion process, half plate, ambrotype, large format

‘Foot of the Castle Keep’, the first successful ambrotype made under my own steam…

The plate will always be very precious to me as it signifies a moment I’ll never forget; the coming together of so many factors and a whole future being unlocked.

It was the first photographic object I’d created with my hands for a very long time without a computer in sight; the first time since my teenage years when I used to tirelessly process film and make prints in my bedroom.

That Sunday, I couldn’t stop making plates until the light finally faded…

wet plate collodion process, half plate, ambrotype, large format

Kath (Half Plate Ambrotype)

Decisions, Decisions…

In returning to my own photography, I chose wet plate collodion for several reasons.

After working as a digital printmaker and retoucher so intensively for the last fourteen years, I wanted to pursue a route that didn’t involve computers. Not only that but one that didn’t require the processing of film or, furthermore, reliance on a lab.

In short, I knew I wanted to produce truly unique — even unreproducible — photographic objects that I’d crafted at every stage with my own hands.

Anybody seeing my new work would know that it was both special and unusual in the modern era.

That pretty much left one route to pursue, the process invented by Frederick Scott Archer in 1851 during the very birth of photography.

The Magician…?

To start with a camera, a piece of glass and a box of chemicals is one thing. To end up with a positive image fixed on that piece of glass is quite something else.

Digital scans of plates posted online as JPEGs can give you an idea but that really is no substitute for seeing them in the flesh.

They carry entrancing — almost holographic — qualities leaving me with the sense that I’ve captured a slice of time, that I’m actually holding some kind of time capsule.

Last weekend, I was working with some friends near the Fish Quay in North Shields. At one point, as I was preparing my next plate, I could hear some chattering voices.

“Look, Mam, it’s a magician!” said one of the girls.

As I stood there in my work apron with my quirky setup around me, I could understand why they came to that initial conclusion.

“Don’t be silly!” replied the mother, “He’s not a magician, he’s a…he’s a…”

I helped her out by telling them I was a photographer but, in a way, that the girls were right, I was also a magician of sorts.

I asked them where they were going.

“We’re going over there to get fish and chips for our tea.”

“OK…” I said and showed them a blank piece of glass.

“…stop by on your way back and I’ll show you this same piece of glass again.”

They seemed excited and intrigued. Sure enough, they stopped off with their fish and chips in hand and I showed them what I’d done to the glass.

“See, Mam, he IS a magician!” they gleefully told their mother who looked at me and smirked with a slight air of concession.

What a treat, I thought, to find myself in a position where I might be perceived to be a magician; such an old process capturing the imagination of children.

What did I show them? This portrait of Paul, the man who’d sold me the camera…

wet plate collodion process, half plate, ambrotype, large format

Paul, the man who sold me my 1905 half plate camera (Half Plate Ambrotype)

Doors opening…

As I come to the end of writing this post, I’m excited for the week ahead.

New doors have been opening ever since I started showing my first plates just two weeks ago.

People have already been asking if they can have their portraits made like that too and I’m thrilled to have received an invitation from Julian Calverley to hook up with him mid-week on the Isle of Skye.

I’ll be making a portrait or two of Julian for his upcoming book, capturing him at work in one of his favourite stomping grounds.

Of course, I can’t wait to make some landscapes while I’m there too, so I’m hoping I’ll have some beautiful work to show you on my return…

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..!

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…

Postcards from the Leeds & Liverpool Canal

I’ve been involved in a rather special journey over the last week or so — accompanying my friend Duncan Davis on his narrowboat, Pearl Barley, from Skipton to Leeds.

Defiantly imperial, Duncan briefed me ahead of our mission:

“The total distance is 28 miles, 7¾ furlongs and 28 locks. There are at least 32 moveable bridges of which 3 are usually left open and 20 small aqueducts or underbridges.”

The journey took five days, albeit at a leisurely pace. The time taken to travel home to Newcastle by train from Leeds? 90 minutes!

A longer blog post beckons once I have sifted through the hundreds of photographs I’ve made. In the meantime, I’d like to share my favourite Instagrams from the journey with you.

All made with my iPhone 4s and edited with Nik Software’s Snapseed, I view them as a kind of scrapbook for formulating my thoughts whilst also acting as modern day postcards, winging their way into the timelines of my followers…

Pearl Barley on the Leeds Liverpool Canal

The 57ft Pearl Barley

Morris 1000 Dashboard

Duncan had a surprise for me — we would drive from Frosterley to Skipton in his 1955 Morris 1000…

Pearl Barley narrowboat gearbox

Before we could go anywhere, the gearbox needed seeing to…

Captain Duncan Davis at the tiller of his heritage narrowboat, Pearl Barley

Captain Duncan Davis at the tiller of Pearl Barley

Pearl Barley on the Leeds Liverpool Canal

Standing on the roof of Pearl Barley as we pass through a leafy stretch of the Leeds Liverpool Canal…

Bingley Five Rise Staircase Lock

Entering the first lock at Bingley Five Rise…

Bingley Five Rise Staircase Lock Gates

Water gushes through the 4220kg gates at Bingley Five Rise…

Pearl Barley moored at Saltaire on the Leeds Liverpool Canal

The stoves keep us warm during a chilly, misty morning at Saltaire…

Duncan Davis at Fanny's Public House, Saltaire

Duncan Davis at Fanny’s Public House, Saltaire

The First Digital Negatives

You may have read in my first proper post, Remembering Ardnamurchan, a week or two ago that I plan to gradually release Platinum/Palladium Prints of my work over time.

Well, after so many years, it’s been wonderful working on my own photography once more.

I’ve now made the first set of Digital Negatives and handed them to my friend and colleague, Richard Freestone of 139 Printroom, to work his magic — I’ll keep you posted as to when they are ready…

What’s a Platinum/Palladium Print?

“What’s a Platinum/Palladium Print?” I hear you ask!

You’ll be pleased to know that I’ve made a new page that explains all — click here to learn more…

HP Digital Negative for Platinum/Palladium Printing

A Digital Negative, among the first of my photographs to be made into a Platinum/Palladium Print — 10 points if you can tell me the location (leave a comment)!

Remember, 10 points if you correctly guess the location of the above image — leave a comment!

Remembering Ardnamurchan

Recently, with our boys away, my wife and I set off on a small road trip. We headed north from our home in Newcastle, bound for the west coast of Scotland.

Back in our youth, before we knew each other, we were both very fond of Scotland — well, I was born there — and for years Kath has been keen to return to Camusdarach, the coastline where she enjoyed family holidays as a child.

Now, one of the things I love about human life is the infrastructure we build for ourselves. Not all of it, but some of it.

I love the machinations, how it all comes together in order to move people around. My friends and colleagues will know that railways tick the biggest box for me but I also got pretty excited when I learned that we were making use of the Corran Ferry on this little road trip of ours.

Waiting for the Corran Ferry at the Corran Narrows on Loch Linhe, Scotland

Waiting for the ferry to arrive at the Corran Narrows on Loch Linhe, Scotland

From the photograph above you can see that the crossing is very short but it’s certainly one of those wonderful pieces of infrastructure that I so enjoy.

I captured the scene on my iPhone and processed it using Nik’s fantastic Snapseed. You can see this image on my Instagram feed too, if you’d care to join me.

The ferry powers against the current (ferry glides) to reach each side and I noticed that the loading ramp is specially angled so that it can sit against the flow while vehicles drive on and off.

As I watched the water boiling past, herons flew up and down, seemingly so close to touching the surface; I relaxed when I realised they probably knew what they were doing.

Memories also started to flood back of the last time I was at the Corran Ferry. It was with my Dad, Step-mother and Sister (then a toddler). We were travelling to spend Christmas with friends on Ardnamurchan way back in the winter of 1995.

On my return, I knew that I would have to dig out the photographs from my archive. I did that, loved what I found and I’ve scanned the prints to share them here with you.

Here’s how the Corran Ferry looked in that freezing winter of ’95, as captured by my Dad…

Waiting for the Corran Ferry at the Corran Narrows on Loch Linhe, Scotland

Waiting with my Dad’s old Saab 95 to board the Corran Ferry, Christmas 1995

Waiting for the Corran Ferry at the Corran Narrows on Loch Linhe, Scotland

Like a film set, the water steams with cold at the Corran Narrows, Loch Linhe, Scotland, 1995

Once we’d made the icy crossing, we headed along the A861 from the ferry and then the B8007 to our friends’ home.

My lasting memories are of the snow, the ice, the cold, the starry nights and the magical climb of Ben Hiant on Christmas Day.

And let’s not forget the lovely sounds of my trusty old Nikon F3HP, which is now resigned to simply looking handsome on my studio shelves…

Nina and collie dog, Ardnamurchan, 1995

My Sister (two years old at the time), Ardnamurchan, 1995

Climbing Ben Hiant, Ardnamurchan, Christmas Day 1995

Climbing Ben Hiant, Ardnamurchan, Christmas Day 1995

Climbing Ben Hiant, Ardnamurchan, Christmas Day 1995

The climb as captured by my Dad…

Time to Print…

Both my trips to this area in 1995 and last week have been perfect. We plan to go back again and again.

Perhaps most of all, I enjoyed making the time to nurture my own photography. This week, I have been collating the images and making digital negatives of a selected few in readiness for creating Platinum/Palladium Prints, which I will show you once they are ready.

Not sure what I’m talking about?

Don’t worry, all will become clear in time as I beef out the pages of this new blog with photographs and descriptions of the processes involved.

Our Route to Camusdarach…

The journey we planned worked well for us. If you think you’d like to pay a visit, you might find the following helpful…

We drove north from Newcastle on the A68 via Jedburgh (narrowly dodging horrendous rain storms and flash floods as it transpired), eventually making our way to the epic scenery of Glencoe on the A82.

Of course, we then took the Corran Ferry (£7.00 for a single) and joined the A861, breaking our journey at The Strontian Hotel on Loch Sunart.

Beyond Strontian, we stopped off for a few short walks (there are many dotted along the route) on our way to Camusdarach campsite.

Our return journey was similar but we took the faster route via Fort William, avoiding the Corran Ferry, breaking the journey at the beautiful Knockderry House.

I’m a little addicted to TripAdvisor (particularly the 1 Star reviews!) and you can see my reviews of these locations there…!

Many Britons have yet to discover the truly stunning locations we have right here on our doorstep, so let’s not talk about it too much, eh?

Helpful Publications…

We found these publications helped enhance our travels…

As I mentioned on Twitter recently, we’re so fortunate in the UK to have the Ordnance Survey making such detailed maps for us. We used these three on our trip — the Explorer range are particularly detailed for fans of the great outdoors:

The short walks I mentioned?  We found those in Walks Mallaig and Ardnamurchan (Hallewell Pocket Walking Guides):

Dreaming of the Future…

For idle moments, I took this book from my shelves at home in the hope that I might rekindle another side of my life, kayaking.

I had a good read of this whilst lying in the tent and dreamed of the future: