The Photograph Explained: “Untitled” by Andrew Dearman
Wet Plate Collodion on Glass
I’ve become obsessed by the Wet Plate Process over the last few years—a 19th century process in which the image is hand made on a sheet of clear glass or on blackened metal. The main reason for my interest is that the process requires attention to detail in order to get the required effects, along with a lot of chance. There are so many variables that one can’t always take account for, and so it’s a process where there is a good amount of controlled chaos at play. As with many forms of photography, the frustrations are a many, and so when it works, it works beautifully.
For me, a successful glass plate is one with a good range of tone, and enough of the curious anomalies that the 19th century photographers who used the process would have considered as the marker of a failure, but which many contemporary practitioners tend to like. Such anomalies, like the empty black space in one corner where the glass plate is held, or the murkiness caused by an uneven pour of the emulsion or the developer, are the signature tell-tale hallmarks of the process. Too many anomalies distract from the content of the image, however a few of these, and an interesting composition, make for a successful plate. The end result is one where it is both a photographic image as well as an object. The object nature of a photograph is of special interest to me.
I guess that I’m one of those annoying photographers who doesn’t really identify as a photographer. My background as a sculptor causes me to consider myself as a ‘maker of stuff’ rather than as someone who self-locates to a specific discipline. Sometimes I feel like a bit of a fraud for not thinking of myself explicitly as a photographer, however such a fluid self-conception allows me a certain agency—from which I believe my current practice is derived. When I learnt how to use wet plate process (which in my case consists of ‘ambrotypes’ because I use clear glass), I realised that the nature of the process and my specific interests meant that I had to build a mobile dark room, more formally known as a ‘darkbox’. This is where my background as a sculptor—a maker of contraptions—came into play.
‘Wet Plate’ means that the image needs to be developed before it dries. The plate is coated and sensitised inside a darkbox (or more usually a dark room) before being put into a plate holder, which is then put into the camera. After the exposure, it needs to be developed straight away. When I built the darkbox I didn’t have much in the way of a large format camera, however I had heard of what we call in the West, an ‘Afghan Camera’, an old camera/darkbox design from the early days of photography, which is still in use in the Middle East and other places such as Cuba. I made use of this basic design. Because an Afghan Camera uses a paper negative, which is then re-photographed to produce a positive, the user isn’t necessarily constrained by the sizes of conventional formats. The size of the image depends on the size of the box and how big the piece of paper—or in my case, sheet of glass—is. The working structure of the Afghan Camera design and its potential portability made it perfect for my needs.
The camera/darkbox that I built can use a range of different lenses, however the one that I tend to use a lot is an f4 Grubb made in Ireland in the 1860s. Made over the course of seven months, it can be used in the studio, taking and then processing an image, or it can be taken out into the field. It can also be used as a stand-alone dark box. As a cart, it can only travel so far, but for living in a city surrounded by parks, I’m not left for want of possibilities. In more recent months, I have purchased a beautiful full plate field camera made in British India in c1910. While it is designed to take ‘full plate’ (6.5 x 8.5 inches), I made a half plate adaptor out of cardboard and sticky tape that can be inserted into the plate holder. The lens that I usually use is an f8 Busch Rapid Symmetrical, also probably from c1910.
There’s an old olive grove down the end of the street that my studio is on, and for some reason this is where I’ve managed to make most of the plates that I’m happiest with. The lines, shapes, and shadows within the trees, especially when the late afternoon light comes in sideways, make for interesting compositions and textures. The plate (photograph) described here is an example of where, for a range of reasons, everything came together. The camera/darkbox cart, with the nickname ‘The Beasty’ (I’m not sure why), is a slow thing to move. It takes time, and like the process itself, moving it around makes you, the user, slow down. This is part of the appeal. It can’t be rushed, and once the right location is found, it usually takes at least 15 minutes to set up.
Pouring the collodion emulsion onto a sheet of clean glass is a curious experience. You have to empty your head and focus on what the collodion is doing. Just when you think that your head and your hand are talking to each other, you’ll find that the ambient temperature, or the age of the collodion, or a dozen other factors conspire against you, and the collodion won’t flow as smoothly as you expected. After the collodion is poured evenly onto the glass plate, it’s then placed into a bath of silver nitrate for a few minutes where it becomes light sensitive. It then goes into a plate holder, placed into a camera, and exposed.
The camera doesn’t have a shutter as such, and so the exposure is commenced and ended by taking off the lens cap. The exposure time of the first plate is guessed at. Wet Plate is only sensitive to UV and blue light, and so you need to use past experience and your eyes as a light meter. When the lens cap is off, you look at the sky, watching to make sure that if a cloud comes over, you know to add time to the exposure. When you see the results of the first plate, you can then judge the variation of the time or the f-stop.
The developer used is different than that used in conventional b/w process. It is splashed on, and then as soon as the mid tones start to appear, it is drained off and then washed before fixing. The development process can take seconds—in the case of this particular plate, about 8 seconds. I always get anxious during this process, as I normally over develop the plate, and it fogs. It’s only when you place the plate into the fixer that you see the image appear more fully, and that’s the magical moment. It then has to be washed again.
The olive grove seems to be a place where the many parrots, that would normally be quite timid, have a ‘yeah whatever’ attitude towards your presence. This particular plate, which is 4.5 x 6.5 inches, was taken at about 6.30pm on a January day when the Rosellas, Lorikeets, Galahs and Corellas really didn’t care about my presence. The f11, 90second exposure, while affording a good amount of detail, didn’t register their presence, nor that of the native rat that leisurely trundled into and out of the miniature gorge cut by the creek through the grove.
Although I have since produced a number of landscape plates that I’m equally as happy with, there was something about the time and place—the calmness of the environment and the way in which that sense of peace produced the ease with which the plate was poured and handled—that causes me to have a particular attachment with the image. In any photographic process, the coming together of time, place, materiality, and technique, seem to be the key. For me, it came together in this image.
Portrait of myself with my camera: Photographer; Che Chorley, January 2015.
All other photographs; Andrew Dearman.