What does it take to take a photograph these days? 4 billion photos a day are uploaded unto Facebook (grandparents), Snapchat (Lovers), Twitter (Networkers/chatters) and Instagram (wannabe photographers) – photographs taken in a flash and flashed over in a second.
Recently I did a workshop with Monica Zabinczyck in the Gallery of Photography in Dublin using a process that dates from the 1850s which is gaining popularity among younger photographers who want to go back into the darkroom and experience the mystery, alchemy and magic of turning silver salts black and watching an image appear out of the ether! 7 to 30 second exposures and silvery plate glass pictures to hold.
I participated in the workshop as part of his research for ‘Tríd an Lionsa/ Through the Lens‘ a six part TV documentary on photography in Ireland for `Sibéal Teo, Dingle, commissioned by TG4 with funding from the BAI (Broadcasting Authority of Ireland).
The workshop was intensive and a little challenging. Its 25 years since I had been in a darkroom but Monika took each of us through the process, calmly and efficiently. Large format (4×5 inches) cameras were used with artificial and natural light to take portrait and still life shot varying from 7 to 50 second exposures, Some worked, some didn’t but The excitement of seeing an image develop in the darkroom was something I had forgotten about and it was a tremendous surprise on the day. The complexity of the chemical processes and, the speed required to ‘get’ the image before the plate dries or overdevelops really makes one reconsider the work done by Timothy O’Sullivan and other photographers during the American Civil War.
More on wet plate collodion
The wet plate collodion was invented in 1851 and was a major photographic technique till 1880s. By combining the fine detail of a Daguerreotype with the negative/positive elements of the Calotype developed by Fox Talbot, Jeffrey Scott Archer solved two problems at once – the lack of detail associated with the paper negatives created with the Calotype process and inability to reproduce Daguerreotypes. Also, the lack of a patent led to widespread adoption and a very significant expansion in photographic activity. The main drawback was that it was a wet project, requiring that the plates be coated, sensitised, exposed, developed and fixed while the plate was still wet. This meant that photographers had to have access to a darkroom at all time, leading to the development of mobile darkrooms for use in the field. The photographs are created on glass or metal plates. These are coated and sensitised and exposed in a wet plate camera – or any camera that has been adapted to take a plate glass negative – and processed while they are still wet. Everything has to be done within 15 minutes or so. It is a slow process where everything is made by hand, from preparing the plates and light sensitive material, through developing and fixing, to varnishing. The collodion process produces a negative which, if exposed on a blackened glass plate (an Ambrotype) or a metal plate (a Tintype) reverses the negative and produces a one off positive image. This technique creates stunning images, the combination of glass and metallic silver against a black background producing intriguing effects in terms of tone and texture.