Happy birthday, wee bug

Today was my daughter’s 18th birthday and I wanted to take a few plates to commemorate it. I didn’t have much time, so I had to hurry.

That was my first mistake. Hurrying summons the fuckup elves. Never hurry, I know that, but I forget sometimes. Let’s see, what were my other mistakes this time around? First picture of the kid, the plate turned out black and she asked me if I had remembered to pull out the slide (a mistake I made with her in the past). I had not. Second picture turned out better. Third also. Fourth, with her sister and mother, turned out poorly due to hurrying with the posing etc.

I will not post that one.

Finally, putting stuff away, I hurried again and dropped two plates, one of which scratched – my favorite one.

Also, although I made a test plate, and exposures were better this time, I still either over-exposed or over-developed. I mixed new developer last night and it might have been that.

Someday I look forward to having the whole day to shoot in leisure. Maybe someday soon. Anyway here are the two pictures of Tess on her 18th birthday. I had fun. Thanks for being patient and a great assistant, Tess, not to mention great model.

1 may 2015 wetplate tess 1

f5.6, 3 seconds, overcast day. maybe overdeveloped? also dropped to the floor, scratched.

1 may 2015 wetplate tess 2

f5.6, about 4 seconds, overcast day. overdeveloped? overexposed? also dropped to the floor, but a little luckier.

The fuckup elves

Finally found the time and energy to mix chemicals and set everything up in the back yard to take a few pictures. The fuckup elves were out in force today and things went wrong in both old and entirely new ways so I learned quite a bit. Took forever to figure out a good exposure. My basic problem is usually hurrying and today was no exception. I should have just taken the time, made a test plate to figure out exposure, but I thought I could skip that step by guessing, which didn’t work so I ended up wasting more plates than necessary.

It was very sunny today, and I am beginning to think overcast days are better for wet plate. Four finally, sort of, turned out and are posted below, from best to worst (IMO).

I am beginning to get tired of shooting pictures of flowers, and looking forward to going somewhere and doing landscapes or portraits.

Kerria japonica, full sun, 4 seconds at f11. 13x18cm (5x7 in) black aluminum

Kerria japonica, full sun, 4 seconds at f11. 13x18cm (5×7 in) black aluminum

The photo above is the kerria japonica bush in my back yard. I have always loved kerry bushes; my uncle, who lived next door, had one near the hole in his wall the honeybees flew into, and I spent many hours sitting there watching them. I love how this picture turned out. It has fewer specks in person, a lot of the dirt is from the scanner, I think.

Bush, full sun, f11 4 seconds. 13x18cm black aluminum.

Bush, full sun, f11 4 seconds. 13x18cm black aluminum.

I was hoping the contrast would have turned out a little stronger with this bush (above), I like the patterns and the potential for creepiness. (Actually, the more I look at it, the better I like it.)

Roses (dry), aluminum foil background, full sun. f11, 4 seconds. Wet plate collodion on black aluminum, 13x18cm (5x7 inches).

Roses (dry), aluminum foil background, full sun. f11, 4 seconds. Wet plate collodion on black aluminum, 13x18cm (5×7 inches).

This picture is my first experiment with aluminum foil. I was hoping it would turn out blurrier in the background, but I guess 4 seconds were not enough. I have seen photos by other photographers who move aluminum foil around during the exposure for a misty or smokey or glow effect. In this picture, it just looks like a piece of aluminum foil stretched between two rods…

Roses (dry), full sun, f11 4 seconds. 13x18cm (5x7in) black aluminum.

Roses (dry), full sun, f11 4 seconds. 13x18cm (5x7in) black aluminum.

A picture of roses in a vase a friend invented – it is basically a plastic collar you screw onto a pickle jar and voila, vase. I think it’s brilliant. The vase. The photo less so. Oh well.Fail better, right? Thanks, fuckup elves!

Tess (wet plate collodion)

tess wet plate collodion

Tess, taken 23 12 2014 on aluminum plate, 8 second exposure f3.5. Old Workhorse collodion.

Today’s wet plate

tess05102014Tess, partial shade, f 5.6, 6 seconds, old workhorse collodion, black aluminum plate. The scratch is from a momentary catastrophic loss of coordination in my dinky dark box while putting plate into silver nitrate bath. The original plate is otherwise clean, I think the white specks etc are from the scanner.

I also did my first glass plate today, a portrait of my wife. It turned out reasonably well. Collodion lifting a little here and there around the edges, not sure why, maybe insufficient cleaning of glass before pouring.

The least-flappable person I know

Cast: Man, in his fifties, white hair (mad-scientist-style), beard, wearing paint-spatteredĀ  pants, white dress shirt stained with silver nitrate solution, rubber gloves (also stained), protective goggles over glasses, and a head lamp (LED with red filter). Woman, in her twenties, whom man has known since she went to school with his daughter, wearing whatever women in their twenties wear.

Woman: (rings doorbell) [Insert doorbell sound effect here]

Man: (comes around corner from back yard) Oh hi. Beta’s out for a walk with her mom. Dunno when they’re going to be back. You can wait for them if you want, or I can give her a message.

Woman: Hi! She was going to loan me a backpack. I can come back later.

Man: Ok. I’ll tell her you stopped by. See you. (goes back to messing around with antique camera in back yard)

Woman: Ok. Bye. (leaves)

The coolest thing I’ve done since 1988

Natali, Laurent, and Agnes

Natali, Laurent, and Agnes

(I also gush a little about wet plate collodion here on medium.com.)

Vienna photographer Agnes Prammer uses a variety of technologies, including wet plate collodion. I wrote about meeting Agnes last October. Since then I have been bugging her to give a workshop.

Last weekend she did and I signed up and the universe did not smite me and I went and this is the story.

Wet plate collodion photography, executive summary: coolest photographic technology ever.

How it is done: collodion solution poured over metal or glass plate to form thin layer. When it gets a little tacky, but not dry, it is put in a silver nitrate bath. This gives you a light-sensitive emulsion. The plate goes into a plate holder, that goes into the camera, the lens cap is removed (there is no shutter), the plate is exposed, the lens cap is replaced, the plate holder is taken to the darkroom, where developer is poured over it, (these steps must all be completed before the plate dries out, hence the name) then once it develops washed off with water to stop the process, then put into the fixative solution, then a water bath, and you’re done.

It’s that simple.

The first day was devoted to technical and theoretical stuff, the second day we went outside to a park by the Alte Donau and took pictures.

I won’t go into the technical and theoretical angle here, it’s all available online if you’re interested, although it is very useful to hear face to face in a workshop. A couple of interesting facts, though: it dates back to the 1850s; collodion contains ether, that explosively flammable party drug of the 19th century; fixative solution sometimes contains cyanide (which we did not use thank god).

The image at the top of this post is my first attempt at wet plate photography. It shows the other participants, left to right: Agnes’s assistant Natali, Laurent, and Agnes.

Look at that picture. Don’t you just want to give them a hug? I sure did, when I walked into the studio where they were sitting around the table talking about ether and cyanide, but acting like Lennie Small is a bad idea in the first impressions department so I held myself back.

My second plate

Natali and Laurent

Weather was changeable. Mostly cloudy, a little windier than necessary, the second day. We shot in a park near the Alte Donau, water off the Danube by the Vienna International Centre where there are a lot of parks, boats, swimming, etc. We started off by mixing developer and for some reason no police showed up to ask what we were up to, sitting around a picnic table with our chemicals and rubber gloves like an early episode of Breaking Bad.

Then we took pictures with Agnes’s antique camera and developed the plates in her portable darkroom, which she made from a baby carriage. The camera, enormous, with a black cloth you put over your head to see the frosted glass plate when you compose and focus the picture, is a great ice breaker. Quite a few people stop to ask questions.

Natali

Natali

Wet plate collodion photography is a slow, fussy process. At the fastest, you can get a plate prepared, shot and developed in about fifteen minutes. I got three made all day, and they all are ruined by a variety of technical mistakes I made – pouring the collodion wrong, poor composition, poor focusing, pouring developer wrong, developing for too long, overexposure, light leaks in the darkroom, and a number of other things.

All the same, they are the best photos I have ever taken. Wet plate photography is my new favorite art form. Even in my inexperienced hands, it captures something magical and wonderful about humans that other forms of photography miss – and you should really go look at Agnes’s website to see what a talented photographer can do with it.

When I got home Saturday night, I went for a walk along the creek with my wife and gushed about the workshop and the people I had met.

“It was the coolest thing I have done since I took a pee with Boris Yeltsin at the Moscow airport men’s room in 1988,” I said.

“That’s what you said after you did your public performance of your composition for theremin, soprano and cash register a few years ago,” she said.

“I think this was even cooler,” I said.

Then something else happened. It got dark and the world came out and I saw it all — everything I looked at I saw: green fields of wheat white in the dark, the moon reflecting in the creek, the black shrubs and blacker path. The church steeple and the wino sitting at a picnic table under the half dead wild cherry tree and the bugs swarming the floodlights of the tennis club.

I saw it all with new eyes, thanks to doing something new, I guess.

Adventures in collodion wet-plate photography

Vienna collodion wet-plate photographer Agnes Prammer with her camera.

This is Agnes Prammer with her collodion wet-plate camera.

It started this summer. I read an ad online looking for models. Men over 60 with beards, and pregnant women.

I thought that sounded like an interesting combination, and in my optimism (I met 2 of the 5 requirements, being a man with a beard) contacted the photographer.

And that is how I found myself…

…wait, I also wanted to insert somewhere towards the start, ‘earlier that summer my family and I were wandering around Vienna late at night and looked inside this one large building full of… stuff, and pillars, and mysterious light, and I thought at the time how full of surprises and interesting architecture Vienna is and what kind of life must that be that has one frequenting such buildings?’

Done.

So I contacted the photographer and she said sure, she’d take my picture for her project, and I programmed the address into my GPS and drove there.

The first interesting detail in this interesting story is the fact that the address does not exist. The proper address is number 6, and the GPS took me to the right place, but the number over the door is an 8. Mysterious, right? Also it turned out to be the mysterious building we had seen earlier in the summer, the studios of the academy of fine arts.

Luckily the photographer was waiting for me outside, which is proper etiquette when your address is imaginary.

The photographer’s name is Agnes Prammer. She does collodion wet-plate photography, which to my understanding is the (American) Civil War-era process that produces negative images onto glass or metal plates using a liquid emulsion. Tin type photos are one example of this, I guess. Agnes became interested in collodion wet-plate photography while in the United States, where the technology has been revived (or popularized) by Civil War re-enactors, among other people.

She explained her project to me, I changed into a sweater she wanted me to wear for the photo, and she took me to her studio, which was a stool on the sidewalk outside the academy, with a black backdrop. Wet-plate photography requires long exposure times so usually is done outside in natural light.

Agnes uses an antique camera. I thought it would be neat to take pictures of her for this blog post with my daughter’s Polaroid camera for double retro-technology points, but I couldn’t get the Polaroid to work ( you have to push the button repeatedly, it turns out) so I took these photos here with my smartphone, which gets irony points instead.

Agnes’ camera is the real deal – you sit there in the sun trying not to perspire in a borrowed sweater while she (under the black sheet, to keep the light out so she can see the image) focuses on a frosted glass plate in the camera. Then she goes into the darkroom, puts emulsion onto a metal plate (like most wetplate photographers, she gets her aluminum plates from a trophy supplies company in the United States) (some use glass plates, but they are fussier and of course fragile) which takes about 5 or ten minutes, then carries it back to the camera in a plate holder. The plate holder trades places with the frosted glass focus thing and the camera is ready to go.

The camera is very simple, and has no shutter. There is a lens cover (Agnes uses a cardboard box) which is removed to take the picture and put back to stop the exposure. That day, in the bright sun, Agnes used an exposure time of 10-15 seconds. Then she took the plate holder back out of the camera, and ran back to her darkroom to develop it. That took about ten minutes.

In other words, it takes about twenty minutes per photo. The plate must be exposed and developed while wet, so it can be kind of a rush depending on temperature.

Agnes Prammer in her darkroom.

Agnes wasn’t really happy with the first picture so we did it again.

Wet-plate cameras are great ice breakers. While Agnes was back in her darkroom getting the next plate ready, everyone who walked past asked me about it.

I couldn’t tell them much, sorry.

Agnes doesn’t always use her darkroom. Like many wet-plate photographers, she has a portable field darkroom. I am kicking myself for not taking a picture of it, because it is awesome. She made it out of a baby carriage.

Agnes eventually came back out and got set up again. While she was getting set up, Roland Neuwirth walked past on the other side of the street. I am a big fan of his, but I ignored him because he is over sixty and has a bigger beard than I do, and I feared if Agnes noticed him she would kick me to the curb.

The second photo turned out better and we were done. Agnes gave me a tour of her darkroom and let me watch her develop the plate. This is how it works: collodion is a solution containing ether. It is poured over the plate to get an even film; when the ether evaporates, it leaves a tacky transparent film (it is also used in medicine to cover wounds). The plate is then placed in a silver nitrate bath. This is why Agnes is wearing gloves in the darkroom photo. Back in the day, wet-plate photographers were known by their black fingers. Then the plate is put into a plate holder, and exposed in the camera, and developed, all while still wet.

In a way, it is a form of instant photography, if you consider 10-20 minutes instant. And in fact, it still survives (more or less, in a relatively similar form, anyway) as instant street photography in the Afghan box camera (AKA kamra-e-faoree) in Afghanistan.

What I am not sure of is whether wet plate photography is resurging, thanks to Civil War re-enactors and antique technology buffs, or if it only seems that way to me because I am googling it and finding tons of information and projects. Maybe it was there all along.

Here is a Wired article on John Coffer, who has been doing wet plate photography for years now. He eschews the automobile and travels by horse, and lives in a house with no electricity or running water. Here is his website.

The technology is interesting because it is so simple. There is no shutter – it is basically a camera obscura, as my daughter Gamma says. If you can get a lens, you could theoretically make one yourself. Ian Ruhter made one out of a van to make impressive large-format tin types. You make each plate yourself, with chemicals that will get you high (ether) or kill you (some techniques use cyanide). This is another reason it is a good outdoor activity. At the same time, the results are superior to modern film photography, because (Agnes tells me) there is no grain because it is a liquid emulsion.

There will be a workshop next spring and I can’t wait to go.

One must hold still for about 15 seconds, depending on the light, and focus one's eyes on a single point when being photographed this way, so I stared at one of the windows in this building across the street.

One of the photos Agnes Prammer took of me.