Old School For The New School

In the age of Instagram, it’s not too surprising to find a growing movement of photographers looking for a more meditative approach to image-making. Photography is now nearing 200 years of technological advancement, and as digital continues to proliferate and film becomes more scarce, there has been a resurgence of interest in the classic analog processes of the darkroom. The time-intensive, antiquated process of wet-plate photography, for instance, is seeing a lot of newfound interest from young photographers who have been brought up on the immediacy of digital. It’s not just for nostalgia’s sake. Even for modern photographers, the admittedly "old school" tech has a lot to teach, and the rich, saturated contrast and incredible detail provided by wet-plate photography is still unmatched in quality, even by digital.

Wet-plate photography and the collodion development process gradually replaced the daguerreotype as the primary photographic process from the 1850s through the 1880s, when much more convenient cameras became available. Even now, wet-plate exposures are difficult to perfect, and the process can take several minutes per each image, which must be captured and then developed and fixed all within several minutes before the wet plate dries. Wet plates are used with large-format cameras, and as you can imagine, the process of taking a single image at a time forces photographers to perfect their compositional skills, especially as the scene can’t be viewed through the lens while exposing a wet plate.

This stock photograph is an example of re-creating the wet-plate look in an all-digital process.

These downsides are quite the luxury in today’s immediate digital environment but, of course, that’s one of the principal reasons why wet-plate photography is seeing renewed popularity. The glass plates and unique collodion development process produce images of uncommon beauty, with rich contrast and an antiquated aesthetic, even when working with modern subject matter and contemporary models. The large glass plates provide almost grainless resolution, and while some practice will give you an understanding of the collodion process, the results also can be very unpredictable, with fun Holga-esque light leaks, interesting solarization effects and atmospheric one-of-a-kind artifacts from the rapidly drying emulsions.

Wet-plate photographs present a particular challenge in that images must be developed before they dry. Images are captured by directly exposing the projected image from the lens to a flat piece of glass, known as an ambrotype, or to a metal substrate like steel or aluminum, most often called tintype (though tin isn’t used). The plates are covered with light-sensitive chemicals immediately prior to the exposure, as well, and ironically, it’s often simpler to bring the darkroom to the location rather than taking the exposure and developing it in a darkroom, which would limit wet-plate photography to a studio. Los Angeles photographer Ian Ruhter converted a truck into a mobile wet-plate darkroom where he’s able to capture projections to five-foot wet plates. Whether working with modern cameras or more antiquated models, there are actually a number of modern photographers working with the wet-plate medium on everything from celebrity portraiture to fine art to nudes to Civil War reenactments, like Sally Mann, Ed Ross, Jill Enfield, Igor Vasiliadis, Luther Gerlach, Joni Sternbach, Mark and Kristen Sink, David Prifti and many others. A photographer based out of San Francisco named Michael Shindler even offers tintypes as a standard sit-down session in his portrait studio.

Ambrotypes can be made as negatives on transparent glass or positives on black-backed glass plates. Tintypes are often associated with Civil War-era images. The positives are made on a darkened or "Japanned" plate of lacquered metal, most often iron. Shadow details for both tintypes and ambrotypes with black backing are actually transparent, which is helpful because the image then can be underexposed slightly to cut down on lengthy exposure times. The antiquated tintype process was based on black-enamel iron plates, but now a variety of metals and backings can be used with both tintypes and ambrotypes, like colored glass, black glass, gold or mica. Pigments, dyes and tones also can be added during the development process, as well as hand tinting and many of the same effects you can use with typical film.

The tintype is also referred to as the melainotype and ferrotype, and both ambrotypes and tintypes are horizontally reversed like a mirror since you’re viewing the image from the side that has been exposed. Lettering on a sign, for example, will appear in reverse.

The Wet-Plate Process

Both methods of wet plate use silver-halide crystals in a collodion emulsion that reacts to the light of the scene. The process is similar to standard film, only the plate must be exposed and developed while still wet with chemicals. It’s then fixed immediately to prevent overdevelopment, scratching, tarnishing and fading. There are numerous workshops from practicing photographers like John A. Coffer, Kerik Kouklis, William Dunniway, and Mark Osterman and France Scully Osterman, who also wrote an in-depth manual called Basic Collodion Technique: Ambrotype & Tintype Quinn Jacobson offers a book with accompanying video tutorials called Positive Wet Plate Collodion, and in New York, the Penumbra Foundation offers several classes on alternative photographic processes like wet plate.

As many of these chemicals are flammable and poisonous, like cyanide or silver nitrate, which can blind you if it gets in your eyes, it’s advisable to be cautious and follow proper safety practices. For instance, the first step is deburring the glass by polishing edges to avoid cuts and therefore any hazardous chemicals that could be introduced to your system. The face of the glass also needs to be polished with solvent because any imperfections or leftover residue could ruin the exposure or keep the emulsion from holding to the plate. The collodion is a sticky solution made from pyroxylin, ether and alcohol. Bromide and iodide salts are added and dissolved in the collodion. Historically, it’s aged for approximately one week, but there are ready-to-go, premixed collodion and wet-plate kits available online, as are developers and varnish.

Making retro-looking images is a natural fit for wet-plate photography.

The collodion mix is poured and spread evenly over the plate, rotating corner by corner, to saturate the glass equally in all areas without lines or spots, with excess draining back into the bottle. Let the collodion set for 20 to 30 seconds; then, in the darkroom, the saturated plate is dipped into a silver-nitrate bath for three to five minutes where the silver nitrate will bind with the iodide and bromide salts to form a light-sensitive silver-halide coating. (You can use an enclosed sensitizing tank or vertical bath to work in daylight.) This is an opportune time to compose your subject and shot prior to adding the wet-plate backing because it will block your view of the scene and the solution is drying rapidly at this point. The drier the plate, the less responsive it will be to light. Silver nitrate will drip from the plate, as well, so be prepared for any mess.

Excess silver nitrate is drained from the plate back into the mixture and then the plate is added to a wet-plate holder facedown and loaded onto the back of the camera. After affixing the wet-plate back to the camera, a "dark slide" in the
wet-plate housing slides up to reveal the plate to the interior of the camera. Then the lens cap is removed to make the exposure, which can last from a few seconds to several minutes, depending on the collodion mixture, lens and aperture, and the amount of light in the scene. (These are very old cameras and lenses, so obviously there are no automatic functions; exposure and timing will take practice to perfect.) The exposure is halted by replacing the lens cap, and the dark slide is slid back into place before removing the wet plate to the darkroom, where it will be developed.

Developer, in this case a solution made from iron sulfate, distilled water, alcohol and acetic acid, must be spread evenly and carefully over the surface to reduce uneven exposures and any aberrance like wet spots or creases in the grain. (These effects can be desirable if looking to simulate the aesthetic of an older print.) Developing is very fast; images will start to appear within seconds, and the exposure should fully fade in at around 20 seconds. If it appears too quickly or slowly, you most likely have over- or underexposed the image, respectively. Once shadows begin to fill in (they should not), a water rinse will halt the development, and the plate must be agitated gently in a chemical solution of sodium- or ammonium-thiosulfate (or potassium cyanide in another method for richer tones) to remove excess light-sensitive silver-halide crystals, which could alter the exposure over time. The rule of thumb is to double the previous development time in the fixer. So, if your developer took roughly 20 seconds, a 40-second bath in fixer should do.

After the fixer, the wet plate is washed in water once more for around 15 minutes before it’s dried on the rack. It also can be dried gently over open flame to heat the plate for the next step, which is varnish. While still warm, the plate must be varnished evenly on the emulsion side with sandarac varnish, a mixture of sandarac resin, alcohol and oil of lavender. Follow the same coating process as you did with the collodion, from corner to corner, with excess varnish removed and drained back into the bottle. The plate is heated once more over flame to set the varnish. When using transparent glass, the final step is to black the back with a layer of glossy or matte black paint to enhance the image against a black backdrop. It’s suggested that this step is performed twice, with the plate drying overnight between each time. This is your large, glass-plate ambrotype negative, and after the varnish has dried overnight, the plate can be used for prints. In the past, this most commonly was performed to albumen paper, which also can be handmade by soaking paper in a solution of egg whites and chloride. It must be dried and then floated once more in a tray of silver nitrate so that silver chloride coats the paper. The paper is dried once more and then placed in direct contact with the ambrotype negative in a frame and exposed to sunlight where it will develop as you watch. Wash it in water once you’re satisfied with the exposure. Finally, the print is fixed in sodium thiosulfate and washed one last time.

Positive glass-plate ambrotypes and tintypes largely follow the same process, only potassium cyanide is preferred as a fixing agent because silver particles look brighter against the background.

Taking A Wet Plate To Digital

There are several methods for making a digital copy of completed wet-plate negatives and positives, including flatbed scanners. Other methods require stripping of the collodion image and transferring it to paper or other substrates. While there are wet-plate simulations in Photoshop, most feel that the visceral organic quality to a wet-plate print is largely lost. There are a few methods for gaining digital versions of analog prints, however. A flatbed scanner with a lot of resolution is the most popular option, while the negative and positive glass plates also allow you to print large paper contact sheets for scanning, as well.

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