Working With Wet Plate Collodion

Recently I had the opportunity to observe the wet plate collodion photography process in Dr. Collodion’s (Bill Vaughn) studio at Lowe Mill in Huntsville, Alabama. He is a very talented photographer and I am so glad I had the opportunity to learn more about this process under his mentorship.

So to start off, wet plate collodion was invented in 1851 by Frederick Scott Archer. Simply put, you coat a plate/piece of glass with collodion, place in a silver bath (where it actually becomes light sensitive), expose your plate, and then develop it all in about a 15 minute time frame. Seems pretty simple right? As I watched Bill perform this process I realized what skill it takes to do this & how talented photographers who used to use this process on battle fields and studios actually were. There are so many factors to consider and everything has to be taken into account in order for the process to work.

My journey was a little rocky to start. I guess you can say I’m a nervous “pourer.” Pouring the collodion on the plate in such a way that it smoothly coats the plate without running off is much more difficult than it sounds (at least for me). Luckily with a bit of practice I am improving and hopefully will continue to do so in the weeks to come.

When you are coating the plate with collodion it can be done in regular light. You don’t have to worry about light affecting it until the plate had been sensitized. That is the point I got my first experience in “the box.” You can see in the picture above the box is pretty tight working space and really only room for one.

So with my very first plate, while I was in the box trying to take the plate out of the silver bath and load in to the film holder, I literally flipped it out of silver bath in to the very back of the box. I momentarily freaked out but luckily it flipped on to the non-emulsion side so it was salvaged!

I went through the whole process

Setting up a still life & focusing the camera

Coating the glass with collodion

Putting it in the silver bath, loading it in the film holder and then the camera and exposing

Then it was back to box to develop ( which was also a bit of a challenge with the pouring at the beginning for me) and then to fix the image

The end product was nothing short of amazing in my mind. I was able to make a tintype

And an ambrotype

Really none of this would have been possibly without such an excellent teacher. It was just a reminder to me how exciting learning a skill/craft is and how important it is to pass this knowledge on through the generations. I feel like I got a good taste of the roots of photography through this process. There is something exciting to me about the “unknowns” in the early photographic processes. You can follow all the steps perfectly and sometimes it is wonderful and other times, not so much. But that’s part of the journey and why I like photography so much. There is always more to learn and more to experiment with.


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