In the Spring semester I was awarded a Quality Enhancement Plan grant to take some of my photography students at Francis Marion University to Asheville, North Carolina to attend a Wet-Plate Collodion workshop given by Brie Castell, owner of Castell Gallery in downtown Asheville. On top of being a gallery owner, Brie is a working artist and teaches at Brevard College. Did I mention she photographs weddings too! She is incredibly talented and performs all her roles quite wonderfully. Brie and I met during graduate school at East Carolina University, so it was such a wonderful opportunity to visit with her. She also presented a lecture to the students on how to present you work professionally for exhibit and for review. Both were wonderful opportunities for my students and for me too! While we were there we also went on a few trails (unfortunately at lower elevations because the Blue Ridge Parkway was mostly closed) and we visited a number of galleries downtown and in the River Arts District. And of course, I had to go to French Broad Chocolates because they have the real goods!
French Broad Chocolates…yum…you must try the Quintessential Chocolate Cake if you are a chocoholic.
Laurel River Trail:
For those unfamiliar with the wet-plate process it goes back a long way into the history of photography. It is one of the earliest processes, which is one of the many reasons I wanted my students to have this experience. What I love about this process is that the image becomes a precious object. We often lose that with the digital age because we feel images are easy to access, discard, produce, and reproduce. The wet plate process provides a one of a kind image that cannot be replicated. Also, because the image is on glass, it makes the image feel more fragile, thus making it feel much more delicate and precious. Here is a very brief explanation of the process:
PREPARING THE PLATE:
Glass plates were cut to fit inside two types of large format cameras: a 5”x7” Tachihara and a 4”x5” Crown Graphlex camera. Regular negative carriers were physically altered to fit the thickness of a glass plate rather than a traditional thin negative. I sent one of our negative packs to Lund Photographics and they converted it for $40. That saved a lot of time! Before the plates were coated with chemicals the edges were sanded. The sanded edges created a ridge to keep the collodion from running off the edge of the glass too rapidly. They were then cleaned thoroughly with windex and alchohol to get rid of any fingerprints or dust that could affect the emulsion.
COATING & SENSITIZING THE PLATE: After the glass plates have been sanded and cleaned they are ready to be coated with collodion and sensitized in a silver nitrate bath. The chemicals used in this process were quite toxic, so gloves were worn at all times. Coating the plate is a process that takes a lot of practice to perfect. It is time sensitive and must be done with extreme caution. Excess collodion is poured back into the storage bottle. The next step (which was done under safe-light conditions) is to immerse the plate into a silver nitrate bath. (You can see the upright solution bath in the image on the far right). This is what makes the glass plate sensitive to light. After the sensitizer bath, the exposure must be made within 10-15 minutes, hence the name “wet-plate” collodion.
FOCUSING AND COMPOSING THE SCENE: The focusing and composing process with large format cameras (as the one shown above) differs greatly from 35mm, medium format film cameras and digital cameras. These are not “point and shoot” style cameras. Before you even load the camera with film, you must focus the image first. The lens must be open in order to focus and compose the scene. The subject matter is seen on the viewing screen reversed and upside down (a large piece of glass on the back of the camera). A piece of dark fabric is used to direct light away from the viewing screen so that it is easier to see if your scene/subject matter is properly focused.
LOADING THE CAMERA: After focusing and composing your subject the plate (which is inside the film pack) is loaded into the camera. The plate must be loaded with the collodion side facing the lens. Exposure times for the wet plate process have many variables. These variables include the size of the aperture, the time of day, weather and lighting conditions, as well as variables that come from the way the chemicals are mixed. Most of the exposures made during this workshop were between 2-8 seconds. Because this is a positive to positive process (there is no negative) exposure is dealt with in reverse from negatives. If the image is too dark, then the exposure time was too short. If the image was too light, the exposure time was too long. This is the opposite from what students learn with traditional black and white film photography.
OTHER EQUIPMENT & CHARACTERISTICS: The cumbersome size and nature of the large format camera requires the use of a sturdy tripod. Long exposures required to make the exposures also make the tripod, along with a cable release a must. The cable release (as shown in the image on the right) keeps the photographer from having to touch the camera during exposure. This helps to eliminate unwanted blur from camera movement.
Because the wet-plate process is the result of a positive (subject) to positive (image on the plate) each plate is completely one of a kind. There is no negative that allows you to reproduce the image exactly. The nuances in each plate made from the chemicals and pouring pattern also make each plate unique. Another signature characteristics of these plates is that the image will appear backwards. This means any type must be considered because it will appear backwards in the final plate.
Brie did such an AMAZING job at teaching such a complicated process to so many people in one day. Here are the students’ results (of course, they are much more amazing in person):
Meanwhile, I was guarding the cameras in the alley. Brie was helping the students sand, coat, develop, and load the plates in the darkroom. I stayed watch and help the students operate the cameras. So, while I was waiting I made use of the alley. Brie has quite a bit of interesting subject matter just outside her gallery door. The even more interesting stuff is inside her gallery. You should go check it out!