Black glass ambrotype. A second at f/11.
Ruby glass ambrotype. A second at f/11.
I am so excited about this post that I woke up at 6am this morning thinking about all the information I want to include. Six months after learning wet plate photography on a workshop with John Coffer, I’ve finally put everything together in order to shoot on my own. It’s not something you can take up on a whim. You have to be committed from the start that this is something you want to do — there’s no trying it out (apart from a workshop).
The first step was buying a Vageeswari view camera, then a lens. My shopping list became overwhelming, so I made a spreadsheet with chemical quantities needed, prices, and online vendors, plus all the bits and pieces (like coffee filters and paper towels) that are needed when you’re in the darkbox.
I reached out so many times to experienced friends for help, and they never failed to provide me with a solution. And I found a friend who loves woodcraft and who converted my surveyor’s tripod, tripod head, and camera base so that they would work together. He also built me my lovely darkbox (pictures are obviously before the darkcloth was added).
I bought a traveling silver bath tank, as well as a helper tray for developing, from the wonderful Niles Lund of Lund Photographics, and then discovered last week that my 100ml of silver nitrate solution would not come close to filling the 1200ml of volume in the tank (duh). Cue an emergency purchase from Artcraft Chemicals. Advice followed that I needed to test the specific gravity of the solution as well as the pH (WAIL!), but luckily hydrometers and pH strips are both easily purchased in town – the first at a wine making/brewing supply store, the second at an aquarium shop.
The darkcloth was an absolute pain in the bum. It ended up costing more than $70 for iron-on sticky hemming tape and black cloth from my local craft store. In the end I had to call in the cavalry to seam the pieces with a sewing machine to form a tube. Adding insult to injury, I had to bastardize my beautiful darkbox by stapling the cloth inside it. My mother sewed straps on to the cloth so that it’s suspended above my head.
One last final panic: I used a sheet of aluminium coated in collodion to sensitize my silver bath, and when I pulled it out in the morning, silver coloured crystals had formed all over the edges of the plate and had come out of solution. I panicked. Silver nitrate is expensive, and I thought that I had done something to cause the silver to precipitate out of solution. A quick check of the forum revealed that it was actually aluminium crystals as silver would be black, and the crystals were bright silver in colour. I filtered the bath and washed out the tank, and all is well.The specific gravity hit 1.07 perfectly.
Finally, I got to work. The first pour was a bit of a mess, but I just wanted to test the camera and my solutions. And it worked! Look at it (f/2, 10sec):
It’s not perfect; there’s contamination along the bottom and some sort of developer/fixer issue along the edge, but I managed to mix collodion, developer, and silver bath well enough to make a photograph!
The second one, at 13sec, is an improvement:
Enough of an improvement that I decided to try a portrait. Is it a great composition? No. But my mom held a pose for 13sec and manages to look totally relaxed and comfortable. My new favourite model:
As you can see, crystals have formed again after drying, and I really am going to have to sort something out about the wire that holds the tintype in place in the holder. Advice will be sought once again from the forums and my friends. But it’s a great and successful start.
My Bausch and Lomb Series VIIa Protar lens is beautiful and sharp. I am astounded and delighted, as I bought it in complete and total ignorance and simply trusted Camera Eccentric‘s Seth Broder’s recommendations. SK Grimes fixed the shutter and mounted it to the lens board for me. I actually still have no idea how it really works. It’s convertible to 3 different focal length, but I’ve only managed to cock and fire the shutter, and change the aperture and shutter speed. I don’t need to worry about that right now, as I have to manually remove and replace the lens cap to make my long exposures.
Now I’m on the hunt for another 5×7 book plate holder for my camera, as I think the one I have will be killed pretty quickly by silver nitrate drips. They’re hard to find.
I encourage you to take a look at Raul Gutierrez’s work and his blog, Heading East. He’s having a print sale at the moment, so there are some incredible discounts available. I love his “Man on the Hotan Road” so much. Some of his prints are also for sale on 20×200 (and Christmas is coming up. I’m just sayin’.).I’ve been to the areas that he photographed in his “Travels Without Maps” series, so it resonates with me.
In unrelated photography news, Annie Leibovitz talked about her new book Pilgrimage on NPR yesterday (I ❤ NPR, I just do). NPR has created a slideshow of photos from it. I’ve just returned from the briefest of visits to the UK, where I visited Julia Margaret Cameron’s home, Dimbola Lodge, and I caught the interview yesterday just at the part where Leibovitz discussed some of Cameron’s work. With the visit fresh in my mind, I found it interesting to think of Leibovitz roaming the house recently, photographing fragments of Cameron’s life.
Their work has some parallels. They both photographed celebrities of their time and became known for it. Cameron moved in educated circles; her photograph of Charles Darwin is the one I always picture in my head when I think of him. Both women’s portrait work has, at times, been derided by art and photography critics, but also lauded.
Cameron lived an extraordinary life, one that begs for a screenplay. She was born and lived in Sri Lanka, where she returned until her death after fifteen years on the Isle of Wight. She took up photography in her forties and seems to have gone after it quite energetically. Dimbola Lodge was saved from demolition a few years ago and turned into a museum, but unfortunately it’s obvious that they lack funding. A hodgepodge of unrelated galleries (including a temporary exhibit of Shell Gas company advertisements from the early 20th century) create an amateurish feel, and I don’t think they do justice to Cameron’s legacy with the small prints of hers that they have on display. It’s a pleasant diversion if you’re on the island, but let’s hope they get some money for improvements soon.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is my very first tintype at John Coffer‘s workshop. It turned out well, don’t you think? That’s because John was standing behind my shoulder at every turn, telling me the exposure time and working with me to develop, fix, rinse, and varnish it.
Ashley, Alex, Bob and I had a great time. After the first half a day or so, John turned us loose on his equipment, producing tintypes to our heart’s content. Between him and his assistant, Travis, we nailed most of our attempts at correct exposure and development.
Happily, I made some of the most basic mistakes of novice wet-platers during the workshop, including putting the plate in the holder the wrong way. Most mistakes happened, unsurprisingly, when we were either tired or rushed or both. Or sometimes the chemicals just didn’t play nice, like with this plate:
The fogging is a result of contamination of some kind. John is a great model, however, and posed until I got it right on the third plate:
Experienced wet plate photographers will be able to see developer pour problems and fogging, perhaps from the hot weather, at the bottom right. But I like happy accidents.
The tintyping bug bit me on the workshop, and I’ve since started assembling the bits and bobs needed to start shooting at home. It’s throwing up challenges at every turn, from fitting a lens to a lens board, to ordering chemicals, to finding a tripod. Stay tuned.
In June I went up to Dundee, New York to take John Coffer‘s wet plate workshop. On the last day he gave us the option of doing two mammoth plates, but I chickened out. A whole plate is about as much as I could manage. Brave Ashley Julin gave it a go and produced a wonderful portrait of Travis Hocutt, John’s assistant for the summer. The Big Travis plate was a very organic piece of art – bugs and assorted flyaways adhered to varnish as it was drying.
Thanks to sleuthing friends around the world, the mystery of the glass negatives has at least been partially solved, and its more interesting than I could have hoped for.
One friend, Chiharu, said that the girl on the left on the third photo is wearing a typical Japanese school uniform, and the person in the seventh photo is dressed for some kind of farm work.
The plaque identifies the young man as the winner of the Odaka Youth Speech Contest at an event held by the Odaka City Crime Stopper Association. At the bottom, it says, “Given by Youth Association of Chita County, and Prefecture Assembly Member Isao Mori.” According to Chiharu, Odaka is now a part of Nagoya city, Midori-ku.
However, another helpful translator read the town as Odako-cho in Aichi, not Chita (or Chiba), and the name of the assembly member as “Isamu” not “Isao.”
This raises the question of what a Crime Stopper Association is and why it was necessary in Odaka (another friend translated it as “anti-crime assocation”). In any case, if anyone has more info on Japanese crime stoppers of the 40’s, or has some ties to Odaka, please do tell me more.
I found these in a Fuji glass plate box in a local antiques store in Fort Myers, Florida (I’d love to tell you what the place is called, but it doesn’t really have a name. Just a sign that says “ANT” since the rest fell off). They’re maybe from the 1940’s, probably from Japan. The last one is the odd one out but I threw it in because it’s as much of a clue as the rest are.
There’s nothing identifying on the box itself, except a torn sticker with a couple of Japanese/Chinese characters on it.
Perhaps these are photos of Japanese immigrants to the United States? That may explain the fashions. I’d love to know what the traditional dress is in one of the photos. However, one of the men is holding up a plaque with characters on it, which suggests it’s from Japan rather than an event in the US.
EDIT: And here’s a close up, as requested, of the plaque (click on the photo for the full size):