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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Wet-Plate Digital?

In a world of megapixels, bit depths and color spaces, Jody Dole is making art by mixing current photo technology with the state of the art from 1860

This Article Features Photo Zoom

America’s Cup trial off Newport, R.I., 2009. Printed on collodion wet-plate tintype via an inkjet film positive from a Nikon D3X original.
Why would you want to put yourself at such risk with a process that can blind you and kill you? Dole shows me the results. “Read and learn all about the technology and techniques,” he says, “be careful, and you can enjoy your own renderings.”

Early photographers used this technology—primitive by today’s standards, but leading-edge then—to bring photography to the masses. Dole goes on to describe original Daguerre-era photography and how the tintype evolved, explaining, “The [tintype] process was done on site in field wagons—in war zones—and later brought to the towns and cities by entrepreneurs who offered portraits to everyday folks. At that time, photography was a professional practice. There were really no amateurs until the dry-plate process took over in the 1890s.”

The Special Qualities Of Tintypes
What attracted Dole to learning and then making tintypes? His response wasn’t surprising and was thoroughly indicative of his nature as a photographer. “I’m always interested in history and old photographs,” he says. “They’re interesting to me because they’re pictures made before reference to other photography—the purity and quality caught my attention, the fidelity, the tonality.”

Dole looks back at great works in his own collection, gazing over full-plate tintypes, and explains how he became enamored of them, somewhat like when he saw the Mona Lisa for the first time. “I was blown away when I first saw the tintype image come up in the fixer bath in my darkroom.”

Magnolia blossoms, Chester, Conn., 2009. Printed on collodion wet-plate tintype via an inkjet film positive from a Nikon D3X original. Colorized using Adobe Photoshop.
To understand what Dole is looking at requires understanding how the photographer’s vision would be influenced by the available tintype technology. For example, according to experience, the tintype process, says Dole, “Doesn’t see blue, sees red as black, freckles will make the image harsh and become dark blemishes, blue eyes disappear, red hair becomes black.” And the total imaging process takes time. It typically takes 30 minutes or more per single picture.

Dole describes the process, “What you do is set up the camera, prepare a plate by flowing collodian onto the plate [which is an art form in itself], sensitize in a bath of silver nitrate, put the plate into a wooden holder, expose it—depending on light available, it could be one to 10 seconds—jump into your field wagon and develop the plate in iron sulfite. Then you flush with water and finish by fixing it in cyanide. And since the plate must be exposed and processed while the coating is still wet, you have about seven or 10 minutes to complete the process.”

Clearly, you’re not shooting action sequences, and with long exposures, you’ll be using a brace to hold the subject’s head steady. Nothing you can do about “blinking eyes.” Digital photography it’s not, but revolutionary it was.

“By the way, constant testing for chemistry performance is required,” adds Dole,” since the chemistry’s response varies under changing atmosphere conditions.”


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