Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Art needs to exist off-line

The internet is great for disseminating one's work, and it's great to learn about work being made by people you would probably never meet. I'm also learning that it's a useful networking tool within certain limits. But recent experiences confirm that for me (and others), it's important that art have a physical presence because of the ways that physicality can expand the experience for both artist and viewer.

I was recently discussing by e-mail a project that a photographer friend from San Francisco was working on, which involved taking a single subject (a tree) and exploring its form and meaning by different photographic approaches. She had initially been inspired to do so by the Wallace Stevens poem "Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird". I suggested that she look at Jennifer Bartlett's work "In the Garden", which was a year-long project Bartlett did where she explored a somewhat mundane garden in the house she lived in for a year in France by making a series of paintings and drawings using different media, different perspectives and different scales. My friend found Bartlett's work to be helpful as her project developed, and she recently posted her first series of images as a 4X4 grid (as a working model for the presentation of the work). As we discussed the work further, I was struck by how rigid and limiting on-line presentations of images can be - there are very few decisions to be made with regard to final size of the work, differences in scale, differences in materials. We had an interesting discussion of how the impact of the work would change if it was hung as a series of installations in a gallery, with different scales, printed on different papers, some images isolated while others were grouped - all of these possibilities opening new avenues to explore the meaning of the work. Few of them are available with on-line presentation. Our discussion made me think a great deal of how these factors play into the presentation of my own work. Making the image, whether digitally or on film, is just the first step in a process that leads to the actual work whether its an online presentation or a physical one; there are just a lot more options to give meaning to the work with physical presentation.

I recently took some of my gravure proof prints and tintypes to a dinner party with friends. Two of the friends are collectors who have generously acquired a couple of pieces from me in the past. As they looked over the work, it was interesting to see how they appreciated the works as physical objects. We had an interesting discussion about the differences in scale of the gravure prints, Alex commenting that he actually preferred the smaller images that allowed him a more intimate feeling in looking at the work. Since both the 8X8 and 5X5 images were printed on 11X15 sheets of paper, this lead to a discussion of scale of the image within the scale of the substrate. As it turned out, because the gravure proofs were made in a workshop, I didn't have control over the size of paper available, and I found the discussion thought-provoking and timely as I have started printing a small series of kallitype images - what size should the image be, and on what size paper. These decisions affect a viewer's experience of the work in important ways.

During an e-mail correspondence, another friend mentioned that she really liked a tintype image I had posted on this blog of cherries in a copper bowl. I dropped in to visit with her a few days later, and brought that tintype along with a few others. It was wonderful to watch her pick them up and play with different angles of viewing them in the light. She mentioned that at first she had expected, really wanted them to be larger (the plates are 3.5 X 4.5) but that as she looked at them further she was beginning to like the smaller scale. She then went on to make a little mini-installation of 3-4 plates, which lead to a discussion of how one might display these tintypes that I found very useful. I enjoyed talking about the work with her, and learning from her reactions to the work how I might continue the project in terms of making additional images and ways to present the final work.

For me, these two experiences were far richer as a way of receiving feedback on my work, and of learning more about how my decisions on scale and presentation affect the viewer experience than any online interaction I've had over my work. It was the physicality of the tintypes and prints that were the foundation for this richer experience. I'm not about to abandon what the online platform offers in terms of interactions, broadening the audience for my work or finding interesting work by other artists. But I sense that for me and my work, that could never be enough.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Seeking Answers to an Unknown Question

from "Ten Kallitypes for a Rainy Day"

This weekend I began selecting floral images to make into a series of kallitype prints. I started with ten images which I had previously made during my "Daily Practice" exercise from last year, and converted them into digital negatives for printing. Yesterday when it was raining and I didn't feel like going to work, I played hooky and made small proof prints of the negatives. Although the finished body of work will be more than these ten images (and the final prints will be on larger sheets of paper), I quickly sequenced the images and began internally referring to them as ten kallitypes for a rainy day. You can see the complete series of images at the end of this post.

But something odd happened during this process - I began to feel a bit of uncertainty and anxiety about this series, which I've been trying to puzzle through. For one thing, it was a different way of working for me - I usually have some objective or definition in mind at the start of a project (although that may change as things progress), but in this case I was pulling images together from an archive. So the working method here was different, and perhaps explains part of the uncertainty (do I feel like this is cheating in some way? will the final work be cohesive or will it be disjointed?). Yet when I look at the little series of images I've come up with, it seems to flow well and I like the different perspectives, the emphasis on patterns, negative space, flowing lines and shapes, different textures and tones.

One problem with flowers as a subject is the fact this is a subject that's been done to death. It's overworked and difficult to make images that say anything new about flowers. They're beautiful, we know they're beautiful, we hardly need reminding that they're beautiful. Artists who've tried to find the dark side of flowers (can it even exist?) only make them seem even more beautiful. In our house my wife likes to announce "these flowers are ready for their portrait" when the cut flowers in the vase are dried and drooping (this is a joking reference to my love of such a subject). So flowers as photography subject - so cliché, so over, so done. Yet I constantly come back to them as subject matter - am I crazy to do so? I wonder.

I think this not knowing why I come back to flowers is what's causing this anxiety and uncertainty about this work. I know there's a question I'm investigating, trying to answer by making these images - but I don't know what that question is. So perhaps I've solved my dilemma - I'm compelled to make images of flowers because I'm seeking answers to an unknown question. What I do know from making these images is that I'm drawn not to the "conventional" beauty of flowers - the brilliant colours. I'm drawn to a tension between their superficial uniformity within a type, and their uniqueness - i.e. the little things that make one red tulip (for example) different from all the others. I also seem to be exploring ways to accentuate the characteristics that I personally find beautiful - those curving lines, delicate tones, the patterns within a grouping and the negative spaces defined by the grouping, formal compositional relationships between individual flowers or plants within the frame, differences in textures. Images of flowers often invoke an emotional response in viewers, and I'm learning how that response is related to these characteristics of flowers and how they are brought together in the composition. When I am photographing flowers I'm look at them as if I was drawing them, and it's those qualities of flowers I want to present to viewers of my images.

Perhaps that sounds as if I know what the question is, but I don't - I constantly return to make images of flowers, but I'm not sure exactly why. And with a bit more time to reflect on that, I'll be fine with it. I might come to like this idea of seeking answers to an unknown question.

Ten Kallitypes for a Rainy Day

Sunday, August 21, 2011

A sublime Sunday - Wet Plate and Friends

The Stone Diaries I
wet plate collodion tintype

This morning as I was drinking tea on the studio porch, I was thinking how my day might unfold: make some new tintypes; meet with a dear friend Jan for coffee; make some kallitype prints. Here's how the day has progressed so far (it's late afternoon here).

After a brief ride on the bike, I came back to find the sun full and bright in the back yard - perfect tintype conditions. I made four plates in total: two still lifes and two garden views, working in partly cloudy direct light, full on direct light and open shade. At this stage of my adventures in wet plate collodion, I like to mix and match conditions so that I become better at reading the light for determining exposure times, and also so I can get a better feel for how differences in light change the qualities (depth and contrast in particular) of the resulting images.

For the first plate of the day, I set up a table for still lifes, and picked up two rocks my wife had brought home. Elena has a strong affinity for "special" rocks and often picks up unusual examples based on shape, colours and textures. Once I saw the image on the ground glass, I imagined doing a series of images ("The Stone Diaries"), so I may well have another theme to work with as I continue to deepen my experience with wet plate. I then set up a still life with zucchini, watermelon and a half of an avocado in bright direct light:

Still life with zucchini, melon and avocado
wet plate collodion tintype

Now that I have more experience, I knew based on the still life images I made last week that I should stop down the lens for a 5 second exposure. Creases in the canvas ground provided a geometrical element to the composition that accentuates the organic shapes of the vegetables.

Finally, I did some work in open shade, making two views of the garden: the graceful bend of a japanese maple, and a rock element within the fern bed. I'm learning from these plates that open shade seems to lead to a higher contrast image:

Japanese maple
wet plate collodion tintype

Fern bed
wet plate collodion tintype

I decided to stop and clean up at that point, keeping to this principle of doing "just enough" to strengthen the consistency of my plate pouring, exposure and processing before I get to the point where I lose concentration.

A short while later, my friend Xane called to invite me over to his place for lunch with Jan. Jan is a mutual friend who moved away to Vancouver, so it's always a treat to catch up with her when she comes over to the island for a visit. Such impromptu invitations are unusual in this town, but we're all comfortable enough with each other to get together at a moment's notice. And Xane's place is a little bit of Tuscan peacefulness in the heart of the city suburbs.

We started with a throw back to our childhoods: grilled cheese sandwiches that Xane made with local cheddar and a hearty full grain bread, beans straight from the garden freshly steamed, then small sweets and watermelon. We talked about our childhood memories around food, family gatherings and picnics. After lunch I did a little show and tell of some of my tintypes and photogravure prints. Both Jan and Xane are experienced artists whose knowledge and work I greatly respect, so it was wonderful to get some feedback on this recent work from them. We finished the afternoon draped over the furniture, napping and conversing in complete relaxation.

With coffee turning into a delightful lunch and time spent in conversation, I've only just now returned home. I still hope to complete my pre-visualized day by making a few kallitype proof prints.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Zucchini for Edward and Charis

(wet plate tintype)

Yesterday I felt somewhat recovered from the photopolymer gravure workshop, and felt an urge to round out the experience by making a few tintypes. When I walked into the kitchen after getting up, I was confronted with five zucchini freshly harvested from the garden by Elena, including several that were gigantic. After the end of my last wet plate session, I had been thinking that I'd like to embark on a series of still life images as a way solidify my technique and as a visual exercise. The zucchini seemed an ideal subject to work with.

At the moment I'm happy to restrict myself to making about 4-5 plates per session. This restriction allows me to work while I'm still fresh (i.e. before I succumb to the ether fumes! [it's actually not that bad]) which I think is important to strengthening those neural networks and muscle memory I'm building by using consistent technique. Working to the point of being tired will inevitably lead to making mistakes, which come from deviations from consistent working habits and work against the reinforcement of the neural pathways. I'm not worried about making bad plates or having failures per se, but I want to first get down a really consistent working method.

The plate above is the last plate I made yesterday - after working on the wider compositions shown below, I wanted to get in tighter to really emphasize the textures, lines and colour patterns of the zucchini. One of the zucchini had a shape that made me think of a famous nude photograph that Edward Weston took of Charis stretched out sinuously on the sand dunes at high noon. I was making these images at that same time of day, setting up the still lifes on the south facing deck behind the house in bright direct sunlight. So I made this plate as a memento mori of Weston's famous image:

Zucchini for Edward and Charis
(wet plate tintype)

While I was working with the zucchini, I remembered that I had a large etched copper bowl that I had made in a workshop a number of years ago (if you're beginning to think I'm a workshop junky, I understand). I used the bowl as a back drop for some luscious cherries to make this image:

Cherries in a copper bowl
(wet plate tintype)

I think it would have been interesting to make a plate of this set up in open shade, similar to the lighting of the first plate above. However, as I look at these last two images, I'm struck by how much I like this harsher, direct lighting of these still lifes. It reminds me of the lighting one sees in images Weston, Tina Modotti and Manuel Alvarez Bravo made in Mexico.

I'm not pushing any great photographic boundaries by making these still life images, but it is a new way of working for me and I am excited by the endless possibilities. I like these elegant, simple compositions which I think match the seductive qualities of the wet plate process quite well. Looking at the plates a day later, I feel a strong desire to keep making these types of images.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Photopolymer Gravure Workshop with Don Messec

Elk Lake, New Year's Day 2011
Paul Romaniuk
Photopolymer gravure print

How do I judge whether a workshop I've just taken was successful? By the level of fatigue I feel the day after it ends. If I've become totally engrossed and engaged in the process being taught, I find I barely sleep for the entire length of the workshop because I'm over-stimulated (occupational hazard of the introvert). It's the day after a 5 day workshop with Don Messec on photopolymer gravure that was held at Lúz Gallery and I'm totally wiped. It was just that outstanding!

Tanya's plate on the press, ready for printing

Don is gregarious, opinionated, sharp-witted, extremely knowledgeable and simply an excellent teacher. He has done extensive research into methods of printmaking from the position of always questioning whether there is a safer and better way to make prints. His research into gravure printing has resulted in a  safe process using photopolymer "solarplates" (that are developed in water and are non-toxic) and soy-based Akua intaglio inks. Don's process results in prints that exceed the quality achieved with traditional gravure methods that involve working with extremely hazardous chemicals and toxic ink formulations. So not just safer, but better prints as well.

Some of the plates from the workshop

I knew right from the start that this was going to be a great learning experience. Don began by telling us that he was definitely going to teach us how to make photopolymer gravure prints, but his top priority was to give us the information and teach us the skills to get the process up and running in our own studios with our own equipment.

In a nutshell, the process involves printing a positive image on a transparency using an inkjet printer, and then laying that transparency on top of a photopolymer plate to expose it to UV light, which hardens the emulsion on the plate according to how much light each area receives as it passes through the image on the transparency. Success relies on two key aspects: knowing what the optimal exposure time is, and knowing how to adjust the image before printing the transparency to hold detail in the shadows on the exposed photopolymer plate. It would have been far easier for Don to do all the pre-testing of the equipment to determine optimal exposure time and tonal adjustments the day before the workshop, so he could just "dial us in". Everyone would have immediately begun making good prints using the parameters he had pre-determined, but we would have been completely clueless how to accomplish that same level of achievement once the workshop was over and we were in our own studios.

Instead we worked as a group to make the test plates that were used to determine the optimal exposure time with the simple UV unit on hand, and then followed that with the necessary testing to determine how much to adjust the black point of the digital image to get a full tonal range on the final print. Don involved us all in the analysis of the test prints and explained the criteria that he uses to determine the optimal exposure and black point adjustment. It helped clarify the process for all of us.

Heather and Lynda inking plates, Tanya at the press

Would you agree to teach a course on stripping down and reassembling a diesel engine to a group of people who ranged from those who barely knew how to start their cars to others who had designed engines for decades? Pretty daunting task isn't it, not something most people would contemplate. Then add in the ringer that you aren't teaching this class in your well equipped shop, nor in some other garage, but in a pizza parlour with a good set of wrenches. It takes a special person to pull that off (and a good set of wrenches).

That's close to what Don agreed to do - come from his world class studio in Santa Fe to teach photopolymer gravure in Victoria, except not at an another artist's printmaking studio, but in an art gallery. The gallery is owned by Diana Millar and Quinton Gordon who together have a passion for building local capacity for making fine prints by a variety of methods - inkjet printing, traditional darkroom work, such "alt" processes as platinum/palladium printing, and also photogravure. The owners in question had a "good set of wrenches" - an etching press donated by a local artist, a space that could be dedicated for a week to the purpose of giving the workshop, and a ton of expertise in photo editing and printing with computers and high quality printers. Don drove up from Santa Fe carrying whatever else he could think would be needed to give the workshop.

The people taking the workshop were pretty evenly split between those who had never made an etching or other printmaking-type print in their lives, to several artists who had significant printmaking experience. Add in the differences in the level of expertise with editing images on a computer (as one student announced at the start of the class "I almost blew up my computer putting my images on that thing-a-majig" aka usb stick drive), and perhaps you can appreciate why I think Don was incredibly brave to take on the task of teaching this workshop. 

Everyone went away with successful plates and prints, which is a testament to how effective Don is as a teacher, and how successful Quinton and Diana are at finding and attracting outstanding instructors, and how resourceful they all are at doing whatever is necessary to make a workshop like this succeed. For example, I know that Quinton arranged this workshop in part because he wants to be able to add photopolymer gravure printing to his personal artistic practice. However, when it became apparent that several participants would need expert assistance with image preparation, he took off his student's hat and gladly took on the role of expert image editor which basically occupied him for the entire workshop. In addition, several of the more experienced printmakers in the group helped out less experienced students with their inking, plate wiping and printing questions when Don was busy helping other students expose and process plates.

Heather pulls a gorgeous print off the press

Well - sounds like everything went swimmingly, doesn't it? Yes, yes it did although by a very circuitous route through initial failure and intensive problem solving. We were using 8"x10" solarplates with a simple gravity contact method - place solarplate face up, place transparency face down, cover with 1/2" plate glass and expose. The first couple of plates made gave very promising prints which were a bit dark but otherwise had good tonal range and outstanding line detail. Then an interesting problem arose - images with larger areas of light grey tones showed "measles" - random, small darker toned circles within the large grey area. In printmaking, large "flat" areas of light tones are always a technical challenge, regardless of whether printing by screen, litho plate or etching plate.

Well, as strange as it seems, this turned out to be one of the most effective learning opportunities we could have hoped for. Being a teacher myself, it was a privilege to watch the way Don got everyone involved in discussing and testing possible solutions to this problem. I think a large part of the "buy in" by the group was the atmosphere in the workshop - there was lots of lively discussion, witty repartee, back and forth teasing between Don and the students that was both entertaining and conducive to a relaxed environment. It took a day and a half and some late night testing by Don, but the problem was solved - the gravity system we were using wasn't giving complete contact between the transparency and the solarplate, leading to random differences in exposure in the large areas of flat tones. The solution was simple - just use plates smaller than 8x10, since the gravity frame provided good contact at smaller sizes. At that point everyone's work took off. More importantly we had all learned a great deal about the process and how to troubleshoot it if the need should arise in our own studios.

Just two of the many luscious prints pulled by other students in the workshop

Once this problem was solved, the plates were coming out of the processing room at a steady rate, and beautiful prints were flying off the press. In his own studio workshops, Don has students use a vacuum frame to ensure perfect contact between transparency and print. Quinton had been searching for a vacuum frame for some time, and fortuitously on the last full day of printing, he got a lead on one locally. He took Don with him to evaluate it, and with a little TLC Lúz Gallery will have it up and running shortly. As the workshop came to an end, I think we had every surface in the space buried under plates and prints. Diana and Quinton have learned that printmakers are like an insidious fungus that rapidly grows to cover all available surfaces.

I'm sure other students in the class will share their prints on their own websites or blogs. As for my own experience - absolutely sublime. I came with a range of images to test the process with, and have a valuable resource of prints to work from in my further experiments with this medium:

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Lauren Henkin Workshop on Marketing

Today I attended a workshop on a topic that until recently I never imagined I would ever sign up for - marketing for artists. I will confess up front that as an extreme introvert, the idea of meeting strangers, particularly with a request such as asking for a portfolio review, amps up the sweaty palms and nervous ticks. Even the idea of joining a group of strangers in a workshop environment can be a challenge for me. While my basic personality hasn't changed, what changed is my realization that if I want something like our nascent publishing idea Studio Centralé to get off the ground, marketing is something that I need to learn about. And fortunately an opportunity presented itself to me with Lauren Henkin's workshop at Lúz Gallery, a venue that I'm familiar with (they consistently host great workshops) where I have come to know Diana and Quinton, who own the gallery.

Well, as has often been the case in the past in this charmed life of mine, the decision to take this particular workshop on marketing for artists was precisely the right thing at the right time. Lauren is an extremely knowledgeable, energetic, open person who quickly engages the entire group in the enterprise of learning about marketing. As a photographer and self-published author (her handmade artist books are exquisite), Lauren has directly experienced and dealt with the challenges facing the participants, which makes her a very relevant and effective leader for this kind of workshop. The group itself consisted of 15 people with an extremely broad range of backgrounds, interests and experience which is a testament to the high quality of the Lúz workshops - they attract a great cross section of people. And that in turn enriches the learning environment, since so many different points of view are expressed during discussions.

Early on, Lauren recounted an anecdote that explained her approach to teaching. It involved a math teacher who taught her how generally to construct theorems rather than memorize specific ones. As she recounted, this vastly opened up her understanding of mathematics. The story resonated with me because I had a similar experience - I slogged through organic chemistry as an undergraduate, robotically memorizing all the different functional groups and the reactions they could participate in. Then when I was a graduate student a chemistry prof taught a course that focused on reactive species (there are only a few main ones) and how to recognize which is likely to form under any given conditions - that greatly simplified and expanded my understanding of organic chemistry. I base my own teaching philosophy on that experience, trying to instil in my biochemistry students an understanding of the general applicability of underlying concepts, which in turn allows them to see relationships and applications in unexpected contexts. So I felt an immediate connection to Lauren's method of teaching.

In the case of the workshop today, Lauren's goal was to get us to think of how to approach marketing in a more general, broadly applicable sense rather than in a rote, rule-bound or stepwise approach limited by conventional thinking about photography markets. She accomplished this with a combination of a well designed, comprehensive handout, specific discussion of some key aspects of marketing and case studies that clearly demonstrated how what seems like a "round about" approach is often much more effective than a direct approach.

Lauren shared an anecdote that illustrated how an initial meeting with a person who wasn't a gallerist (but who liked her work) and who couldn't ostensibly directly help her resulted in an introduction to a gallerist, an impromptu show after pitching the idea of a book opening to that gallerist, which in turn lead to establishing a relationship with a collector. Does it seem convoluted? Perhaps. Does it seem unpredictable? Absolutely. Yet when Craig Semetko talked at Lúz Gallery two weeks ago, he told a similar story that wound its way from an initial meeting with a gallerist in Colorado, to a two person show with Henri Cartier Bresson, to travelling shows at Leica galleries in the US and Europe, to an introduction to one of the premier photobook publishers in Europe. In both Lauren's and Craig's stories, one important characteristic was their persistent work at keeping in touch with people and following up all opportunities that arose from that.

What I particularly appreciated about Lauren's fresh take on marketing was its very basic underlying principle - that a gallerist/publisher is first and foremost a human being and should be treated respectfully. In Lauren's case, she has approached such people with an offer to voluntarily lead a critique group, or to give an artist talk, to go to lunch after an initial introduction; in other words, to simply establish a relationship with the person in question without requests for a portfolio review or a studio visit. And to do that sincerely with the intent to get to know this person better and to become a contributing member of the local arts community. This idea was a very welcome one to me, the introvert. I'm only going to be comfortable trying to ask someone to look at my work or consider carrying my books in their gallery or shop if I have been able to get to know them.

Another important aspect of the workshop was navigating the question of "when are you ready for the next step", be it going to a portfolio review, approaching a gallery, self-publishing a book. Here Lauren's advice was to keep in touch with other artists, give careful consideration to your work and the feedback it receives (both positive and negative); to ask for the guidance/advice/critique of a few people whose work and opinions you respect. This idea was encapsulated very succinctly and effectively by the educator Sir Ken Robinson in a TED presentation, and in his book The Element, in what he refers to as finding your "tribe" - that is a group of people who share your passion. These are the people who can share your experience and who can hopefully be open and honest critics of each others work. While I've been part of tribes who shared my passion for printmaking and for painting, I need to establish a good group to work with in photography and book making/publishing.

This summary really only touches on a few of the highlights of a very excellent workshop. Lauren is wonderful at connecting with each person in a group, listening to their needs and concerns and responding in a helpful and supportive way. If you have an opportunity to take a workshop with Lauren, I'd highly recommend that you do.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Weekend Wet Plate Adventures

 In the garden

Last weekend I started on my solo wet plate collodion adventure. The day before the weekend arrived, I received a package in the mail from Niles Lund containing my silver bath, developer trays and modified film holders. I was excited about getting started, and in anticipation of getting these final items, I had mixed a batch of salted collodion the day before. It was still quite cloudy, so I also mixed a small batch of a "quick clear" collodion recipe that I found on-line. 

Before I could get started, I needed to source some glass plates and black trophy aluminum. A friend of mine owns a framing store, and I stopped in to ask if they would cut some 4"X5" glass plates for me. He was happy to do so (at no charge!), which pleased me no end since I was assured of having something to work with. I next went to a local trophy store - the people there were very nice and helpful, and I ordered plates in 3.5" X 4.5", 4" X 5" and 7.5" X 9.5" to fit my various holders. No problem, and they would be ready in 30 minutes. That was a pleasant surprise - I was expecting the usual "two to three business days". When I returned the plates were ready, but came with a shocker of a sticker price! At $0.30 per square inch, my order was over $200 before taxes (each 4"x5" plate was $6, each 7.5"X9.5" plate was $20!). Pleased to have material to work with, but resolved to finding a less expensive source in the future. It's good though to know that there is a local source that can help out in a pinch.

Later in the afternoon, I picked up the glass plates that my friend's assistant had cut, and lovingly interleaved with mat board off cuts - 20 sheets to play with! The euphoria lasted until I arrived home to discover that all the plates were larger than 4"x5" by 1/8" in one or both dimensions and wouldn't fit into the holder. Lesson learned - take the holder with me when I want glass plates cut so that the requirements are fully understood. I'll have to individually grind each plate down before I can use them. Still, they were free and a kind gesture from a friend.

Another problem I'll have to deal with is pouring, sensitizing and developing plates. Collodion is a mixture of volatile, highly flammable solvents. Since my darkroom is in the basement of the house, which also has gas furnace and hot water tank, pouring the plates in the house is just not going to work. In addition, my wife is extremely sensitive to odours (which can trigger horrible migraine headaches). I plan to build a dark box to do the plate pouring and processing outside in the garden. For this weekend, I was able to take advantage of my wife being away to try a process where I poured the collodion onto the plate outside (it doesn't have to be in the dark), then sensitize the plate in my darkroom and develop it there after exposure. This keeps the level of volatile fumes (and particularly flammable materials) to a very low amount - not a permanent solution but one that let me do some playing this past weekend.

As it was a holiday weekend, I had three days to get my first "solo" experience with wet plate since taking the workshop with Joni Sternbach. I started with the smallest aluminum plates, using a modified 4X5 holder and my Shen Hao field camera. The image you see above is the second plate I produced using the camera. With this exposure as a guide, I made two additional plates using simple subjects from the garden:

Mexican planter

Studio rain chain

I was quite pleased with these plates - the collodion pour was pretty good, exposures were good and processing went well. I cleaned up, aired out the basement to push any remaining fumes away.

The next day, I continued experimenting, this time using a small studio building in the garden for setting up still life subjects. The studio had two windows and a north-facing skylight, so gets beautiful even illumination. The day was partly cloudy which made judging exposures a bit of a challenge, and I had no idea how UV-light transparent the skylight is. So there was quite a bit of guessing and experimenting going on. The first image I made using a dollar store magnifying glass as a lens - it gives an interesting effect, but I'll need to make an aperture for it to get to a reasonable exposure time (it lets in too much light for shutterless exposure).

Avocado and lemon

I then went back to the Fuji lens I was using the day before to revisit the same still life:

Avocado and lemon redux

If you click on either image to enlarge it, you'll notice the highlights are very "grainy". This puzzled me because wet plate is known for giving virtually grainless, continuous tone images. I had noticed that when I pealed back the protecting film on my aluminum plates there seemed to be a residue left behind on the surface of the plate. With subsequent plates I wiped the surface with some isopropanol to remove this residue, and the problem went away.

Black Pears I

Black Pears II

I finished my plate making with these two images of pears in a deep dish we bought years ago in Taos. Fun images to make because of the poor sensitivity of collodion to yellows, but I did feel a bit sheepish since pears seem to be one of those cliché images that get made a bit too often.

The third day I wanted to try out my Ansco 8X10 camera with a Dallmeyer Perfac brass lens. I had Niles modify two 8X10 film holders for me, one to take a 4"x5" plate. I made several plates - the first in open shade seemed somewhat underexposed, the second taken in open sunlight looked like a good exposure (exposures were quite long for an f6.3 lens, although the bellows extension contributed to that) and the third in mixed shade/direct light was overexposed:

Planter foliage

Foliage and flowers

Planters on the studio porch

Overall I was very pleased with how the weekend went. I'm already thinking of what projects I would like to pursue in wet plate, while at the same time recognizing that I have many more plates to make before I become consistently proficient with this technique. For the moment, I think I'd like to do a nice series on the garden planters we have. Each year, Elena puts together about a dozen planters in these funky, fun mexican pots and I think it would be fun to do a "formal portrait" of each planter. I also would like to explore still life some more. And I'm already feeling the excitement about taking things "on the road" to do some landscapes - for that I'll need to finish that dark box!