Frustrated by the ease at which digital photos can be taken and doctored, some artists are kicking it old school: They’ve revived wet plate collodion photography, a medium invented and popular during the mid-1800s.
Complicated, cumbersome (it requires darkroom work on the spot) and potentially hazardous, the collodion process uses raw chemicals in a race against the clock.
And that’s why collodion photographers love it so.
“There’s something about these hands-on, historical processes. You’re so in control, you’re making your film from scratch. (But) you’re subject to physics and the chemistry, and then you’re trying to make something in your mind’s eye – the composition and lighting – while maintaining this technical finesse,” says Quinn Jacobson, a Denver-based photographer. “There’s great satisfaction in accomplishing that. There’s a level of satiety that you don’t get from working in digital or even film.”
Collodion portraits and landscape images have fine details but appear dark and moody – even haunting or ghostly. “The aesthetic is kind of a half-remembered dream,” says Jacobson.
The process involves coating a surface, usually glass or aluminum, with a mixture of collodion, ether, alcohol and two salts that dries to a tacky, clear film. The collodion is derived from a flammable compound known as guncotton (in other uses, it’s flash paper) dissolved in sulfuric and nitric acids.
The plate is made light-sensitive in a bath of silver nitrate, after which it is exposed to light. The image exposure can take seconds or several minutes, depending on available light and photographer preference. It’s developed and then fixed, or stabilized, in a solution of potassium cyanide. With longer exposure and an added step, a negative for printing can be made.
Of all the chemicals in the process, potassium cyanide is the most dangerous. “A tenth of a gram is enough to kill a horse,” says photographer and collodion fan Matt Alberts. “There’s 18 grams in my fix. That’s kind of scary.”
Alberts, also of Denver, learned the collodion craft from Jacobson nearly a year ago. He was motivated partly by learning that his ancestor, Lowell Gilmore, of Albany, N.Y., worked in the medium more than a century ago. Alberts says the collodion process captures the essence of photography. “I’m creating something just with light and my hands. It feels more like art.”
Jacobson makes portraits of the “marginalized” – day laborers, the homeless, convicted felons. In his Ghost Dance project, he also documents sites in the West where troops massacred American Indians in the 1800s. He’s concerned he won’t be able to capture the land’s terrible past, but thinks the moody collodion – in use during those times – will help.
“It adds that mystery and darkness and that kind of melancholy feel to the whole project,” says Jacobson.
Alberts is documenting skateboarders, picking up images at skate parks around the West. He says collodion photography “sees beneath the skin” of its subjects: “I often photograph ‘fringe’ people. Even though they have a rough exterior, they are some of the smartest, nicest people. Collodion shows how people really are not what people think they are.”
Photographer Euphus Ruth, meanwhile, makes his plates in the quiet fields and neglected cemeteries near his Greenville, Miss., home. He documents the decay of abandoned churches.
“It’s not for just anyone,” says Ruth. “It’s for people who like to slow down and methodically enjoy the process of making the photograph.”
A retired public utility worker, he has been making collodion images for eight years. He first learned how during a three-day retreat with John Coffer, of Dundee, N.Y.
Jacobson, who has taught photography around the United States and Europe, helps Ruth and other collodionists by e-mail and online at The Wet Plate Collodion Photography Forum, which has more than 5,000 members. Collodion photography, developed in 1851 by Frederick Scott Archer, was being practiced by only a handful of photographers 15 years ago, according to Jacobson.
Jacobson says a novice can expect to spend about $3,000 on collodion equipment and supplies, and two to five years learning the science and techniques. He recommends finding a good introductory workshop.
Ruth works out of the back of an old Cadillac hearse – his portable dark box slides out on casket rollers. Jacobson and Alberts rely on portable dark boxes, too. Online sites for buying them and other supplies include Wetplatewagon, Chamonix View Camera, Art Craft Chemicals and Chemsavers.
The process hooked Al-berts immediately.
“The first time you pour it and you do the whole thing and you watch it come up, it’s like, ‘What?’” says Alberts. “That’s where the real magic happens.”