If you adored Lauren Bush and David Lauren’s iconic old west style wedding portrait, you’ll go extra crazy for the real thing. It isn’t often that I come across anything in the wedding industry that feels ultra unique and “new”. But the use of early photography methods is an example of something very old becoming new again in the light of time when digital photography and Photoshop reign supreme and images are as replicable as right click and “save as”. These photos are the real deal and fascinating as all get out. No filter in Photoshop will ever be able to create the light of wet plate and for very good reason. Recently, I had the distinct honor of meeting up with a practicing wet plate collodion wedding photography expert, Dylan Burr of Aventura Photo Video. He described the process of wet plate to me and helped me gain an understanding of the way that it captures a distinct rendering of reality.
[Editor’s Note 5/13/15 – If you want to see the images from this post in color, head over here. This was part of an Outlander styled shoot. <3 )
Wet Plate Collodion:
Brace yourselves folks, it’s about to get science-y! The wet plate collodion photographer gets to be an artist and chemist. The wet plate collodion process is a tricky, nuanced, and flammable one. There is a steep learning curve for the process itself as well as an individual’s equipment. The first collodion photographs were developed (pardon the pun) by Frederick Scott Archer in 1851 and constitute only the second “mainstream” photography type. The process involves dissolving a halide salt into a sticky substance called collodion that is made from nitrocellulose, ether and ethanol (all of which are not great chemicals to work around). Compared to the other solutions in the process, this mixture is more stable and can hang for awhile. In fact, it’s not even viable until it has sat for several days to clarify. According to Dylan it produces a gruffer and less luminous image as it ages so he reserves aged salted collodion for grizzled male subjects and landscapes where there is a lot of light. The mixture is placed onto glass and tilted to carefully spread an even coating. Once the collodion becomes gelatinous is is bathed in silver nitrate to form a silver halide – a compound that is light sensitive. This part has to be done in a dark room. Dylan has a portable dark room with the various chemicals he needs to perform all the steps because the next few have to happen rapidly and with skill.
The prepared plate is put into the camera while it’s still wet. Then a cover is removed from the camera (Dylan usually uses a hat..hehe) and the light is allowed to expose the image onto the plate. Collodion photographs need a lot of light to make a good image. Dylan experimented with long exposures and various light sources. He settled on a flash that can take a photo instantly (down from several minutes when he first started) but also comes along with a pretty wicked wave of energy. The next step is to quickly get the exposed plate to the dark room for developing. The image is developed by soaking in a solution of iron sulfate, acetic acid and alcohol in water. The plate is then fixed with sodium thiosulfate and varnished for protection. The whole process takes about 15 minutes from the time the collodion hits the slide. And you thought Polaroids were slow!
Click here to see a video Dylan made of the wet plate process
The super cool thing about this process is the images it makes. They are downright ethereal looking. The chemicals on the plate are only sensitive to high frequency, short wavelength light (actinic light). This means that the cooler end of the spectrum from green and blue to UV light that we can’t even see is registered visibly. Thus the spooky presence of phantom light and the feeling that the camera captured the subject’s energy in addition to their visage. By contrast, warmer colors like reds will not activate the chemicals on the photo and remain dark. So know going into a session with this type of photography that a pink dress will look dark and a blue dress will look white! (But don’t worry, it won’t keep changing like that pesky dress of color shifting fame.) It also means that blue or green eyes appear to glow and are indescribably enrapturing.
The sensitivity to UV light is only half the story as to why wet plate images seem to glow and have intense depth. Dylan uses a dark glass substrate for his pieces (ambrotype) or metal (tintype) which produces a positive image right out of the camera. The areas that were light in reality reflect back to you in the form of the chemicals remaining on top of the glass. The unexposed areas are removed by the developer and appear dark by the very medium the image is formed on. This dual layer image creates literal depth compared to a 2-D image printed onto paper. Back in the day, the effect was further magnified by using a thicker glass with dark coating only on the back side. The photographs are mounted for safe keeping because, just like other positive images like Polaroids, they are one of a kind creations that can only be copied by scanning them and printing them out.
Dylan is one of only a couple hundred photographers who can still do wet plate photography. Typically it’s used by hobbyists and those seeking to give an antique photography experience like at Civil War re-enactments. Dylan chose to take it to new levels by mixing the old and the new. Primarily a wedding photographer, he has used the wet plate method to do some pretty cool things at weddings and styled shoots. Because the whole process takes so long, it’s not feasible as the only photography method on a wedding day. (For that he’s an incredible digital photographer and videographer). What it does superbly is artistic and impactful portraits and still lifes. I’m particularly in love with the ability of wet plate photographs to make a couple in their wedding garb look intensely present and ghostly. A wet plate photograph will draw you in and absolutely must be studied. Therein lies the true value to me.
The Neighbor’s Project Art Show and Charity Auction:
In another modern application of the antique method, Dylan undertook The Neighbors Project to photograph Denver’s homeless population. He explained that his goal was to show the individuals as they wanted to be seen. He portrays the reality of Denver’s homeless instead of either the grizzly or romanticized extremes that prevail in the art world. Using a captivating medium helped add beauty to what were intentionally plain portraits of ordinary people who happen to be homeless. The enticing, one of a kind photographs help to lure the viewer into the story of each person and are an innovative take on raising awareness and understanding. As someone who had a relative that was homeless in Denver, I have come to have an greater understanding of the myriad reasons for homelessness and the “normalcy” of those who live life this way. I encourage everyone to check out his work!
His art show for Neighbors will be this Friday, March 27th at 6:00PM at Studio Denver. Tickets are only $5 and proceeds go to the St. Francis Center where Dylan met the individuals in his photos. Additionally, there is a film and book that can be purchased.
I wanted to do an art project that wasn’t artist self-wankery and something that could directly help a few people. I wanted to use wet plate collodion but it wasnt till I got further into the project that the process itself is an allegory to being homeless. It is a slow process that you must shoot and develop all at once without letting the photograph dry out. A main struggle for the homeless is the constant waiting. Wet plate is also a random and imperfect process. It is extremly hard to produce the same result each time. Similar to the personal stories of the homeless. Everyone has different reasons for being homeless and different things to overcome to get out of it. It is also a forgotten process and many of these people feel the same; forgotten.
My main job is photography and cinematography for weddings. This project was great for building dicipline and very different from the frantic pace of a wedding. It has made me more methodical, resulting in more purposeful digital images. No longer firing off hundreds to pick 1, I slow down to visualize, and shoot that one final image. – Dylan Burr via The Neighbors Project website