The intimidating valley sides of Glencoe, Scotland, form the backdrop to ten seconds in the life of my younger son, wrapped up warm on a blustery, rainy day.
There’s excitement afoot but more on that later in the month.
In the meantime, whet your appetite with this short clip broadcast last night by the BBC Look North team. You’ll also discover why I made the Tintypes below…
Swan, Billy Mill and Cowgate — when strung together, these names could perhaps be mistaken for the title of an obscure new advertising agency.
Instead, if you ask a Geordie to name three roundabouts, I expect those are the names that would spring to mind first.
Hen, an old pal of mine, recently asked me if I’d make a photograph of Cowgate Roundabout, which lies at the northern end of Newcastle’s central motorway.
Even though it’s certainly a local institution, this could be perceived as a slightly odd request. There is, however, a simple reason behind it…
You see, when Hen was only fifteen years old, his father — Jimmy Henderson — passed away.
Jimmy used to work for Newcastle City Council and one of the only lasting relics of that time is his contribution to the construction of Cowgate Roundabout.
Hen even retrieved this treasured print of the construction crew, taken in the late 1960s just before work began:
It recently transpired that a £3m improvement plan has been given the green light — a plan that includes the removal of Cowgate Roundabout as we know it today.
With works due to start this summer and months of disruption ahead, it was time to get moving with our photograph of the site.
So, we mobilised Neena very early on Sunday morning. Our aim was simply to record the roundabout — usually extremely busy — in a peaceful state without any traffic.
In memory of Jimmy Henderson, our efforts resulted in this finished plate :
Behind the Scenes…
We made a lovely morning of it, not only loading Neena with the necessary photographic paraphernalia but also making sure we had a stash of fine coffee and treats.
Here are three of the images I shared on my Instagram feed at the time…
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.
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.
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.
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 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…
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.
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:
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…
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.
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…
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…