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!


J. M. Golding said...

Paul, I'm delighted to hear about your experience of this and what a joy it is for you! The images are gorgeous, especially the first one - and I actually like the first "Avocado and lemon," "grain" and all. Now that I've seen some tintypes, I can kind of imagine the way these look "face to face," and I can see the depth in them and the quality of light.

Mary Lou said...

Welcome to the amazing world of wet plate. You are in for many happy (and some frustrating) days. Glad you joined the fewer than 500 of us that are around.

Alex Timmermans said...

Really nice post and it was fun reading it.
Have a nice time with collodion. Your start was very good.
There will be good and unexplaned bad days, but it's always fun to do !