There are certain types of photography that leave us all in awe and wet plate collodion is one of those techniques which is both baffling and undeniably beautiful. James Pearson has been shooting with this Victorian method for around 7 years now and shares with us the detailed and precise process that goes into creating these breathtaking photos.
Hello James, tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into photography?
Like so many others, I've always been a fan of photography and as a kid in the 1980s and 90s, I used various cheap point-and-shoot cameras, including a bright red one that was free after collecting vouchers from buying teabags! It wasn't until the 2000s when I got more technical about photography and started using an SLR and then when digital photography came - with that immediate feedback loop - I really managed to hone my photography knowledge and techniques. Fast forward to several years of learning about digital photography, and shooting weddings professionally, I became burnt out from too much digital.
The digital detox – again, like so many people, I spend a great deal of time in front of a computer and the time spent working on photography in this way became less and less fulfilling. In 2011 I started to explore film again but this time, with a lot more knowledge thanks to everything I learned through digital photography. The wonderful world of so many film stocks suddenly appeared to me, which I had never known about when I first shot film with my point and shoots; I had just used the free colour film that came back with my developed photos! Going back to film was a slippery slope for me, but in a good way, and I moved from 35mm to medium format, then to 5x4 large format and then darkroom printing. It's a magical world to lose yourself in. In 2012 I was invited to a photography exhibition that was very different from anything I'd seen before – the photographs were made recently, but they looked Victorian. They were made on pieces of metal and glass and I was absolutely captivated by them. The process is called wet plate collodion and it has stuck with me ever since. I had to carefully consider whether or not to take the leap into this whole new process. Progressing through various formats of film and then into darkroom printing was one thing, but starting wet plate collodion is a whole different challenge.
A few months after the exhibition, the artist was running an introduction workshop in wet plate collodion, which I attended. The workshop was excellent and gave me a basic understanding of how to make photographs using this process that was prevalent during 1851 to the 1880s. I then gathered various books and manuals; studied the theory and gathered the equipment and materials. Six months later I was ready to start making my own plates at home. The process is far more involved than shooting film, but it's still fairly straight forward to achieve, albeit a skill that takes years to really master! It's an utterly satisfying, hands-on way of making photographs. It’s very reliant on careful motor skills to manipulate the chemistry to both create the light-sensitive material from the raw materials through to developing the final image – all within around 10 minutes or so!
Some of your portfolio is made up of Wet Plate Collodion (WPC) photos. Can you explain this process to us in simple terms?
A very basic rundown of the process is as follows: the substrate material that will physically support the emulsion is typically a sheet of metal or glass. This substrate is coated in a sticky, salted solution of collodion. This must be done by carefully holding the plate in one hand, pouring the collodion from a bottle in the other hand and slowly maneuvering the plate to flow the liquid from one corner to the next, so as to create a perfectly smooth coating. This emulsion coating will start to dry slightly as the sweet-smelling ether evaporates, but it will – and must - remain wet throughout this process; hence the name wet plate collodion. Once the emulsion has dried to the point that it will hold a fingerprint in the corner of the plate, it is lowered into a solution of silver nitrate. The silver nitrate reacts with the salts in the collodion, forming silver iodides making the plate light sensitive. After three minutes, under a red safelight, the plate is removed from the silver nitrate bath and placed into a plate holder to allow it to be taken from the darkroom (or portable dark box/tent) to the camera.
The camera is already set up and the scene is carefully composed prior to preparing the plate so that only minor adjustments and focus checks are required at this point. If it's a portrait photograph, then the subject will usually have a brace to help support the back of his/her head to maintain position and stay still during the long exposure. The plate holder is inserted into the camera and the exposure, often several seconds long is made. The plate is returned to the darkroom and developed by pouring an iron sulfate-based solution on top and agitating it for 15 seconds. This produces a faint milky negative image. The plate, after a thorough water rinse, is now no longer light sensitive and can be taken into daylight. One of the most magical moments happens when the plate is slipped into the fixer bath; the negative image disappears before your eyes and then a positive image slowly emerges as the ethereal fog clears. The resulting image can be surprising as this process is sensitive to the blue and invisible UV end of the spectrum and insensitive to red light; much the same as orthochromatic film.
This is such a time consuming a delicate process, why choose this over other processes?
Portraits can be strikingly different from photographs made using fast film or digital methods because the sitter is required to remain still for a number of seconds. All of these aspects along with the beautiful colour and tonality of the virtually grainless image coupled with a process that requires effort and skill to produce each and every plate are the reasons why I love it so much. It's a time-consuming process that can be fraught with problems to diagnose; but for me, this is all part of the charm. And after overcoming challenges, the reward of seeing a beautiful image reveal itself is so much greater than any other process I have tried. I think that the amount of effort put in is proportional to the satisfaction the final image can provide.
I created a video to demonstrate the process of making a wet plate collodion ambrotype portrait, which shows all of this in a bit more detail:
Any tips for people wanting to start trying out Wet Plate Collodion photography?
For anyone thinking of trying wet plate collodion I would definitely recommend seeking out a workshop with an experienced wet plater. There are several artists around the country who provide this. Alternatively, look for a local wet plate photographer who might be willing to show you the basics. Once you understand the basics, including important health and safety, you can hone your skills and understanding with the help of various books, manuals, and YouTube videos.
Thank you so much for sharing your story with us James!