I recently had the privilege of taking a workshop at LUZ Studio & Gallery on how to do "collodion wet plate" photography with Portland, OR wet plate artist, Jody Ake. While this isn't a review of the workshop, I must say that I very much enjoyed Jody's teaching style and calm, zen like approach to the work. One of the things that he said that has stuck with me, more than any of the technical information, was, "your energy can affect the work."
That got me to thinking about how the wet plate process is kind of like life. When you are doing wet plate work, you are responsible for the outcome, from start to finish.
You must be mindful during each and every step of the process; mixing the chemistry, choosing and composing the subject, preparing the plate, pouring the collodion, sensitizing the plate, exposing the plate, developing the plate, fixing the plate, washing and drying the plate and finally varnishing the plate. Each step has it's own temperament and characteristics that you must embrace, respect and enjoy.
As in life, there are many places along the way where things can go wrong. And while there is a sense of urgency, the trick is to remain calm and not rush any of the steps, because if you rush, things get messy.
My first "tintype" self portrait, circa 2012
Working in the darkroom has always been a relaxing and meditative experience for me, but the wet plate darkroom is a little different. There is a greater level of concentration and dexterity needed when pouring the plate, both with the collodion, and with the developer. The pour happens very quick and great mindfulness is required. This in turn requires the mind to slow down and focus on this one "simple" act.
Once the collodion is on the plate, the plate is sensitized in a bath of silver nitrate for 3 ~ 4 minutes. This time can be used to still the mind even more. Once the time is up, the plate is loaded into a light tight plate holder and taken to the camera for exposure. Final adjustments are made to composition and focus, the holder is placed into the camera and the exposure is made. Even the exposure is slow. Exposures of 12 seconds or longer are not uncommon. More time to slow down.
After exposure, the holder with the still damp plate inside is whisked (mindfully) to the darkroom. The plate is removed from the holder and the developer is poured gently onto the plate. 15 to 20 seconds later the image begins to appear. Development is halted with a smooth flow of running water.
Once the plate has been completely rinsed of developer, it is immersed in a fixing bath to clear and make the image stable. Another wash of running water is required to remove the fixer. After the wash, the plate is dried, then varnished to protect the delicate image.
To varnish the plate, the plate is heated over an alcohol burner. Once the plate is sufficiently heated, a mixture of Sanderac gum, grain alcohol and lavender oil is poured on the plate and drained off. Once this has set a little, it is heated again to start the curing process. The plate will require at least a week to cure completely.
Wet plate photography is a process that requires you to slow down, to work with intent and to work mindfully in the present moment of each step. I think it is possibly the most zen like type of photography there is in a way, because what you see, is NOT what you will get. And that is also how life can be, and both are greatly affected by the energy that you bring to the table.
Slow down, be happy.