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The Allure of the Wet Plate Collodion Photograph
The Allure of the Wet Plate Collodion Photograph
Published by CarlRadford
12th January 2009
Default The Allure of the Wet Plate Collodion Photograph

The Allure of the Wet Plate Collodion Photograph

by Kerik Kouklis


After more than 15 years as a platinum and gum printer, I was drawn to the wet plate collodion process after seeing Luther Gerlach’s work at the 2003 Alternative Photographic International Symposium (APIS) in Santa Fe, NM. I was drawn to the somewhat muted tonality of the images and the many artifacts that are part of the process. Not only were the images rich and beautiful, listening to Luther discuss the making of these images intrigued me. I decided then that the collodion process would become part of my work. With help from veteran collodion artists Will Dunniway in 2004 and Mark Osterman and France Scully in 2005 I became fully hooked on the process and it has dominated my work in the ensuing years. I have also learned a lot by participating in an online forum for contemporary wet plate artists run by Quinn Jacobson.

I originally thought that I would primarily use wet plate collodion as a way to make negatives with my ultra-large view cameras as the film market continues to shrink and the choices are becoming fewer and much more costly than just a few years ago. However, once I began making collodion positives (ambrotypes on glass and “tintypes” on aluminum) I fell in love with their look and have not made many collodion negatives.

Like many of the alternative processes, to an outsider, wet plate collodion seems difficult, slow and labor intensive. But, like many of the alternative processes, with good coaching and a little practice, the process is relatively quick and easy and lots of fun. Once I am set up and working, I can make a finished piece in 15 minutes or less, start to finish. There is no film to develop, no test strips or prints to make, no RAW files to process in Photoshop - just a beautiful, rich, dreamy image on metal or glass that looks like nothing else in photography.

The Wet Plate Collodion Process

The steps in making a collodion image are as follows:

1 Prepare the plate. For glass, this requires thorough cleaning and polishing using a mixture of water, alcohol and calcium carbonate which serves as a mild abrasive. The glass must be extremely clean to assure good adhesion of the collodion. My metal plates are made with engraver’s aluminum that is coated on one side with black enamel paint. This product comes with a thin plastic film to protect the surface. Simply peel off the plastic film and you are ready to pour. I call these plates “alumitypes” since they aren’t made on the traditional blackened tin.

2 Pour the collodion. Plain collodion is a syrupy liquid that is made from cotton or cellulose dissolved in ether and alcohol. It has been used as a medical dressing since the US civil war. For photographic use, we add additional ether and alcohol to thin the collodion and small amounts of iodides and/or bromides which combine with silver nitrate to form a light sensitive film. The collodion is poured onto the plate, then the plate is rocked and rolled until it is fully covered then the excess collodion is poured off and collected for reuse. The collodion is allowed to set up for about a minute.

3 Silver nitrate bath. Once the collodion has set up, the plate is placed in a bath of 9% silver nitrate for four or five minutes. At that point, the plate is ready to be exposed.

4 Expose the plate. The plate is then removed from the silver bath and loaded into the plate holder while still wet. You then have about five to 10 minutes to complete exposure and development before the plate begins to dry out. If the plate dries, it will lose its sensitivity to light. Collodion is very slow and it is primarily sensitive to blue light. Also, the speed of the collodion is dependent on its age and the formulation of iodides and bromides employed. For these reasons, a light meter is nearly useless for determining proper exposure. Exposures are determined by trail and error and experience. I’ve seen approximate ASA numbers of 0.5 to 1 for collodion. Full daylight exposures are typically in the range of one to a few seconds at f/6. Under diffused daylight or window light, exposures can range from 20 seconds to several minutes. You can see why wet plate artists like those old brass lenses with wide maximum apertures in the f/4 to f/6 range and often shoot at or near wide open.

5 Develop the plate. The plate is developed in a solution of ferrous sulfate, alcohol, acetic acid and sugar. Development happens very quickly and my optimal development time is in the 10 to 15 second range. Longer times can cause fogging. Also, shorter development promotes a warmer image color, which I prefer. Development can either be done in a tray or “in hand” where the plate is held on the fingertips and the developer is poured on the plate and swirled around. In either case, the goal is to use the minimum amount of developer so that you don’t dissolve away and lose too much of the silver deposit that makes up the image.

6 Fix the plate. After development, the plate is rinsed thoroughly in water prior to fixing. Fixing can be done with plain hypo, concentrated raped fixer or with potassium cyanide. Fixer tends to create a cooler image color while potassium cyanide gives a somewhat warmer and brighter image and washes away much faster than fixer. Fixing in cyanide takes approximately 30 seconds with fresh chemistry. Of course, potassium cyanide is a deadly poison, so it must only be handled with proper training and personal protective equipment.

7 Wash the plate. The plate is washed in running water or several changes of water for approximately 10 to 15 minutes.

8 Varnish the plate. Once dry, the plate must be varnished to protect the delicate collodion emulsion and to protect the silver image from oxidation. Traditionally, the varnish is made from alcohol and gum sandarac with lavender oil added to keep the varnish somewhat flexible and prevent cracking over time. The varnish is applied in a similar manner to the collodion by pouring onto the plate, then pouring off the excess. I find varnishing the most unpredictable and frustrating part of the process.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that the wet plate collodion process has taken a firm grasp on my life. My cameras and my darkroom are now permanently stained with silver nitrate. I often have evidence of “black paws” caused by silver nitrate stains on the hands and fingernails – a badge of honor among wet plate artists. The process is often described as addicting by those of us that practice it. If you remember that first time you saw a black and white print appear in a tray of developer, magnify that by 10 fold and you’ll understand the feeling you get every time you see a collodion image change from a hazy bluish negative to a positive image in the fixer. I’ve now made many hundreds of plates and each one gives the same rush as the first. Perhaps that’s a result of ether fumes in my darkroom, but I believe it’s from the feeling that only comes from making something of uncompromising beauty completely by hand from start to finish. Consider yourself warned…

Bio

Kerik Kouklis is a fine art photographer living in California’s Sierra foothills. His work is represented by The Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite and Studio 391 Gallery in Gualala, CA. He has been teaching workshops in platinum/palladium and gum printing since 1997 and wet plate collodion since 2006. He teaches from his home studio and for The Ansel Adams Workshops, Project Basho in Philadelphia, The Photographer’s Formulary in Montana as well as other locations in the US, Canada and the UK. For more information, visit his website http://kerik.com/.

Resources

Scully/Osterman – http://collodion.org/
Quinn Jacobson – http://collodion.com/
Will Dunniway – http://www.dunniway.com/
Ansel Adams Gallery/Workshops - http://anseladams.com/
Project Basho - http://www.projectbasho.org
Photographer’s Formulary - http://www.photoformulary.com/
The Center for Alternative and Historic Processes - http://cfaahp.org/
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  #1  
By CarlRadford on 12th January 2009, 08:15 PM
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This article was written by Kerik Kouklis and is published here with his permission.
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  #2  
By PMarkey on 12th January 2009, 09:33 PM
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A great article Carl and many thanks to Kerik Kouklis for allowing it to be posted here . I've never really looked at any of the alternative processes but after looking at Kerik's pictures and your own posted in the albums I have to admit to having my curiosity wetted .



Paul
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  #3  
By CarlRadford on 16th March 2009, 09:48 PM
Default Kerik here in 2010

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Originally Posted by Paul View Post
A great article Carl and many thanks to Kerik Kouklis for allowing it to be posted here . I've never really looked at any of the alternative processes but after looking at Kerik's pictures and your own posted in the albums I have to admit to having my curiosity wetted .



Paul
Kerik will be back in 2010 teach plt/pd and digital negs and hopefully more wetplate too!
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