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…

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..!