Wet-Plate Collodion

Today here in Abbotsford British Columbia district #34, teachers have a professional development day. I was blessed to be able to take part in a workshop that took us back about 150 years into the past with an old photographic process (wet plate collodion), used around the time of the building of the transcontinental railroad; John A MacDonald was our Prime Minister and Louis Riel returned to the Red River which is in modern-day Manitoba. The collodion process was introduced by the Englishman, Frederick Scott Archer in 1851.
It was one of the most amazing and enjoyable things I have ever been involved with in a long time. I was totally enthralled with the process and exposed several 6cm x9cm tin-type plates and a few 9cm X 12cm plates.
Photographer Phillip Chin was brought in for the workshop which included six ladies and me for this art workshop.
We all had a very wonderful day.

As I remember it the process was as follows:
1. peel the protective mask off black (very thin trophy metal) plate
2. open bottle of collodion (outside or very well ventilated area as this stuff can knock you out!) and in one motion, pour out a portion to just cover the plate - rock it gently to coat and hold at an angle over the bottle to pour back the excess. Getting an even coat (you can't add more to uncovered spots or do anything about them, you just have to do your best and go with that). If the plate is really badly coated, throw in the garbage and try again. Have a lot of plates - Phil did.
3. take the wet plate into the darkroom with the safelights on and place in a darken container of silver nitrate (AG NO3) and leave there for between three (3) and four (4) minutes. Have a timer running to keep track of the time.
4. Take the plate out which now looks like it has been coated with a thin layer of milk and place the milky side (emulsion side) facing down in the plate holder so that the uncoated silvery back is facing you. Orient the plate in such a way that the best part is where you want the best part exposed taking into account that the top of the plate will show up at the bottom of the photograph and vice versa. Things are reversed in this type of photography.
5. seal the plate in the holder and take it out and after a final check through the camera viewfinder, load it into the camera and close the lens.

6. get your subject into place and adjust the brace to hold the head straight (if using one) and then make sure the lens is closed, the aperture is set to f/5.6 or wide-open and expose according to what your test exposure and experience under the lighting conditions tell you. In our case, with a lightly overcast day, our exposures were three seconds, with plates rated at ISO 03. I should mention that we ran a few test exposures, by exposing part of a plate for five seconds, then the whole plate for another five seconds before determining the finally taking exposure.
We used Phil's 20cm x25cm Deardorff with a 9x12 reducing back and his 6x9 Graflex. The 9x12 was more popular.
Once an exposure is made, put back the dark slide and take into the darkroom where a little bit (15ml) of the developer is poured onto the plate and worked around, back & forth to develop out the image. When it looks right, you see the subject, start to wash in a tray with a pitcher of flowing water holding the tray up so that the water can run out into a larger tray. Continue washing this way till the oily residue is absent. Now take back outside and place the plate into a normal rapid fixer - this is the only chemistry that is common to black & white processing, otherwise, all the chemistry is specific to the collodion process. The image will at first appear to disappear and turn cloudy, but then it will return and turn into the final image. Fixing times seemed to run at least four to five minutes. Then place in a tray of water for 10 minutes to an hour. We used large trays of standing water, but I wonder if you could use a slow running water bath. After the wash, place on drying racks to dry.
7. Once dry, plates can be coated with a Sandraca (a lacquer finish) solution to protect the emulsion or a Liqudex coating. For this step will we gather back at the art studio to complete on Tuesday after school and after the long weekend.

Here are two images, one of me made by Sherry and one (of many) that I made of Sherry and her dog Abigail.
I'm tired, I was very pleased to be helping others and doing several plates myself, as well as helping with the clean-up, phew ... but well worth the experience. I'm so glad I could do this old-time photographic process from very early days of the dominion of Canada.


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