Late last June, I took a class on Wet Plate Collodion at the Maine Media Workshops with Jell Enfield. I had been wanting to take this class for a few years, but the schedules never seemed to coincide. However in 2012 the stars were in alignment and there I found myself in one of my favorite places in the world, the Hass Lab on the Maine Workshops homestead campus. Things were about to get wet and some interesting images were to be taken.
Possibly one of the best aspects of this class were the other students and teacher assistants. Seems that Wet Plate attracts an odd lot of photographers so our group was always on the large size, which was great because a model (interesting, beautiful & cool at that) was easy to get in front of the camera. Also, the large number of T/A’s made it easy to get chemistry poured, cars loaded, darkroom tents set up, and advice. We had the assistance of a local who is a supplier for wet plate paraphernalia, Niles Lund. He would prove invaluable (he did a mod on one of my Fidelity 8×10 holders to a wet plate holder for $40) as a second to our fearless and silver stained instructor, the inimical Jill Enfield. Jill mixes passion, intuitiveness, and experience into her wet plate endeavors. It was an honor to spend the week with Jill and learn this technique. Check out Jill’s time lapse video of her shooting in NYC’s Tompkins Sq. Park to get a feel for Jill and the process.
I’m not going to get into the technical details of wet plate. My fellow student, uber geek and all around super cool photographer chick Sarah did a great job describing the technique on her tumblr blog. So if you aren’t familiar with wet plate I suggest you go, otherwise Ill summarize. Before there was digital there was film, and before there was film there was wet plate. Wet plate is primitive, you have to prepare, shoot and develop your plate all within 10 minutes. In the early days of photography back in 1850 it was state of the art, but now it is ranked as one the golden children of the alternative process movement. Wet plate is a slow speed black and white process with film speed rating ISO 6 to ISO 10. Thus the long exposures compared to.. well… anything else! It’s also difficult to do, you have to possess manual dexterity to get the various chemistry to adhere, flow, coat, and develop. This process is not for the klutzy, you will have really sloppy plates. And the weird part? Sometimes that’s not bad.
One thing that was going through my head lately as I embraced the Wet Plate technique, was how does it fit in the “big” picture of photography? Why would one do this whilst the look can be easily replicated in Photoshop? I’m sure the wet plate practinioner just gasped, but really, it’s a lot of work and commitment to make wet plate collodion photographs opposed to running CS6 loaded with a some NIK filters. There are many reasons to do Wet Plate all digital joking aside. For those of us who like to stain your fingers and dig into the process, it takes you back to a humble, hard and complicated era of photography. Think of it as a way to walk in your Great, Great Grand Daddy’s shoes. (I’m not implying my lineage includes a photographer, as far as I know, aside from Uncle Harold, I’m really the first to embrace it). I made it hard on my self, going for 8×10 instead of 4×5, my images took twice the dexterity and acumen to accomplish a good plate. I like to ride a bitch however; I made two 4×5 Ambrotypes and switched over to the Deardorff. Jill also shoots with a Deardorff, and it is a choice camera to work with. Darn thing is solid like a Sherman tank (and just as heavy).
A small concern about Wet Plate is its look. It attracts and scares me at the same time. It’s a look that you can point your finger at and say, “ohh wet plate, cool”. Jill did mention the ability to use watercolor pigment and a few other tricks to own your image more than just executing a great plate. Niles was using an old Dallmeyer brass lens with out a shutter, just timing his shots the old fashioned way, removing the lens cap and counting “one one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand”. Throw precision away with spent developer, because Jill’s count was different than Niles count and I used my handy timer from my view camera kit. See, I learned view camera from Gordon Hutchings who learned from Morley Bear who are F64’s at heart. I’m a bit of a zoney, for better or worse so I found some of the wet plate technique haphazard and random. The look however is ingenuous to the technique, and that is where I have a hard time swallowing the process. This may be the key, process. Wet Plate is thick with process, control of the chemistry, effects of contamination, and also long exposures. The portraits taken during the era of wet plate were all almost somber and dour expressions. You can’t hold an ear-to-ear grin of a smile for 20 seconds. As a wet plate subject and to record a sharp face you must relax your muscles and be very still. The results are a serious subject. Landscapes tend to take on a pictorialist feel, and again, slow shutters speeds make for odd bedfellows including foliage in the wind soft, water amorfourous and action blurry. Nature of the beast when you eat shoot at ISO 6.
Would I switch to this workflow and shoot a project with it? I’m going to say the answer is no. My reason is that I need to concentrate on the subject and executing the project as a whole. My current project, Battlefield Cant has already begun with Ilford FP4 8×10 film, I can’t switch now. And even if I did, setting up portable darkrooms and maintaining the chemistry in the field is way too invested for the return. That all being said, would I shoot wet plate again? Yes, it is an honor to shoot wet plate as our photographic forefathers did. Wet plate is complicated and the results somewhat unpredictable, and that may be it’s joy.
Aside from learning the wet plate technique I got to cover some new ground. Because the class attracted seemingly eccentric and cool devotees I got to practice 8×10 Portraiture. I really cannot take a photo of a mundane person; I need some style or something strong inside a person to capture. It had been bugging me, how do you capture a person with an 8×10 view? Doesn’t the camera and film holder come between you and your subject? Square up camera, focus, place subject, compose, focus again, hold really still, insert film holder, and make exposure. Daunting right? I worked through it, I asked my subjects some thing cheesy but effective, I asked them to hold really still and look into the lens while telling the camera a secret, using telepathy of course. The results on several were quite compelling. Brenton Hamilton’s portrait is a favorite of mine. Photographic opportunism presented itself when Joyce Tenneson paddled up in a kayak to where we were set up on Day 4. Once again, that creative cauldron of Maine Media Workshops tests you, makes you “go up levels”.
I’d like to thank Maine Media Workshops, Jill Enfield and my classmates for wonderful week of photography.