|The image on the left is a tintype and was the test shot for the image on the right, a black glass ambrotype.|
The move to the East Bay in May has provided me with a good 12 hours of sunlight everyday. One of the only things living in the middle of San Francisco couldn’t provide. But, as I’ve learned, even in the semi-perfect conditions of Oakland, photography can be a complicated, messy business.
The wetplate collodion process is completely analog and requires quite a bit of time mixing raw chemistry. The 19th century literature says that the chemistry must be in “harmony” in order to have everything in working order. Without getting into too many details about how photographic chemicals change through evaporation, age, and chemical transfer, suffice it to say that they require maintenance and upkeep. If you fall out of “harmony,” your images will suffer in quality.
There are five basic steps to making a collodion image; pouring the collodion onto the glass or tin plate, sensitizing the plate in a silver bath, properly exposing the plate to light, developing the plate into a positive, and removing unexposed silver in the fixer bath. All of these steps will have an effect on how the photograph is made and what the end result is. You have about 15 minutes before the plate starts to dry out. I spent the month of June on my new deck troubleshooting my chemistry and gear. For three weeks I shot photographs to no avail. One minute I’d determine that my chemistry was bad and next I blamed my camera. I’d have a perfect image in the morning and by late afternoon my images looked like a brown, foggy mess. Just a month earlier I had zero issues in the San Francisco garage—and no sunburn. Now, I was making photos in near-perfect conditions, but with no consistency (other than the sunburn).
Nothing about my new set up was “in harmony” and it was nearly impossible for me to get an image that didn’t suffer from some sort of defect. Fogging, streaks, light leaks, especially long exposures, etc., etc., etc. This went on for the better part of a month. While some artists embrace this as part of the process I don’t want the “rough” edges to distract from the image.
Slowly but surely things got better. I rebuilt my camera, covering any place that might let in light with tape. I rebuilt my plate holder and one by one replaced the chemistry. Soon I was having success with images to my standards. Perhaps it was the difference in weather that was my problem.
You may ask, why use historical process at all? Unique aesthetics? The performance of the creation? Seduction by apparatus and chemistry? These are part of it, but the main reason I use it is for the transformative qualities it provides—giving us a window into something that exists/doesn’t exist simultaneously. The positive is the negative. The message and the medium are inseparable. The image is reversed onto the plate, a mirror image of the actual item (text is backwards). Each photograph is created one at a time with chemistry that is responsive to your technique and vision. Sometimes you are granted—or burdened—with artifacts and debris.
Transformation is inherent to the collodion process. This process allows cheap aluminum plates for bowling trophies to be photographs. Glass becomes an archival material. Every time you see the image come up in the fixer its the confirmation of your chemistry, craft and ideas.
My challenge has been shooting photographs and loosing process as the underlying concept of the images. The process creates something that you can look at and say, That is an image. But, in reality, that thing does actually exist—as a piece of metal of glass—and what you’re looking at is a new photographic object.
Tim Pinault uses historical photography techniques to change the context of objects fraught with personal and cultural meaning. He will speak at the California Historical Society on August 6, 2015. Get Tickets.