As I have mentioned previously here, I am a wet plate photographer. When I tell this to some people I usually get, “A what?” as a response. Just for the sake of understanding and education: wet plate photography is one of the older forms of photography and came into prominence in the first half of the nineteenth century. I specialize in ambrotypes (glass plates) and ferrotypes, also known as tintypes, (iron plates). The process itself, in quick and dirty terms, involves coating a plate with a substance called collodion, treating the plate in a dark room with silver nitrate, placing the plate in a light-tight plate box which then fits into the camera which is essentially a wooden box with a very heavy glass and brass lens, exposing the plate, taking it back into the dark room to develop it into a negative image, then fixing the image by making it a positive in a solution of potassium cyanide. Once the image is dry, a specific type of varnish is applied and dried with heat to prevent peeling or scratching. The whole process, if I’m on my game and having a good day, takes about fifteen minutes per plate. It is labor intensive compared to modern processes (especially in the age of instant gratification digital), but the end result is like nothing else with purely phenomenal tones, depth, and clarity.
The community of wet plate artists is fairly small. Only a few hundred people actively practice it worldwide, but thanks to a growing revival movement, the number is increasing steadily. However, chances are, if you are into social networking and are a wet plate photographer you will most likely come in some kind of contact with the community of collodion artists out there. One of my favorite artists in our small field right now is a woman named Joni Sternbach. Please do yourself a favor and visit her website here. You will not be disappointed. Sternbach has a wonderful series of photographs titled SurfLand in which she captures the images of surfers on the beach. The images are at once enchanting and haunting. The beach setting lends itself so well to the medium, I can’t even successfully put it into words. She uses tintypes, which I can certainly understand. They are lighter, more portable, and not prone to breakage like ambrotypes. She is a very brave woman to cart all of her relatively sensitive equipage to the rough climate of the shore, but I see why she does it. The results could bring simultaneous tears of admiration and envy to any photographer’s, wet plate or otherwise, eyes.
Here is an artist profile for Sternbach put together by Mark Keene, which I found on his Vimeo page.