23 November 2012

Wet Plates

Last year, at the Manchester History Festival, I sat for a portrait by Tony Richards. He's this great photographer, who uses Victorian wet-plate photography processes. You might remember that first photograph had me looking weirdly dirty. I've visited his studio before, but I hadn't taken any more pictures until last weekend, when he asked me to come by for some Victorian picture play time.

He took this photo on a tiny tin plate, about the size of those slides you used to put in your slide projector.

Tony is such a lovely person. We've become friends since that first meeting, so my afternoon session was dotted with fun gossip and coffee and a nice long catch-up chat. Noisy neighbours and bad dates and work and how plastic floats in water.

He's so generous with his time and expensive photography chemicals, that he even taught me how to prepare and develop a wet-plate myself (it didn't go very well).

But here's how it should go:

You need a sheet of tin or glass sized for your camera, and you have to prepare each plate just before you take the photograph.

To prepare the plate, you go in a darkroom and pour collodion over the plate and let it dry until it's just a bit sticky. Then you place the plate in a silver nitrate bath for a few minutes – Tony had an egg timer for it. Then, you remove the plate and while it is still wet, you place it in your camera, leave the darkroom and take your shot. Once you've taken the photo, you have to go back to the darkroom and develop your photo (again, while your plate is still wet). Pour developer on the plate, wait about 15 seconds, wash the developer off with water, place the plate in a fixer bath to remove the excess silver, and then the plate goes into a circulating water bath until you're ready to dry the plate.

You don't have much time to fiddle around, so you have to have your shot set up and ready to snap before you prepare your plate– and Tony still hasn't entirely figured out how to save a shot if the light drastically changes while you're preparing your plate.

Because the plate has to be wet from preparation right through to development, you can't have a set of 20 plates ready to shoot. You can only have one. And if it doesn't come out right, you have to prepare another plate, take one shot, and develop that one. It's time-consuming. But it's also weirdly meditative. You get used to the rhythm. Prepare, shoot, develop. Lights off, red lights on. Stand still, move a bit, still again. It's hard to know when you should stop.

This was one of the first plates that Tony shot, on a glass quarter-plate.

And we both really liked it (even though my neck and collarbone look weirdly skinny). We then spent a few hours trying to recreate it. Didn't work. Between my twitching, the light changing, and my general inability to put my chin in the same place EVER AGAIN, we were never quite successful.
One of my favourite things about these glass-plate photos is that you end up with these transparent photographs. 

You can either paint the back black or just lay the plate on black card to make it look right. The tin plates are already opaque, so you don't have to worry about them. But I think tin offers fewer artistic opportunities, too. I know you can print photos onto clear sheets of acetate and transparencies more cheaply, but this just seems so much more interesting.

I can't tell what it is, but there is something seriously cool about this. And Tony really knows what he's doing. See his blog for more of his work, as well as more shots from my session.

Even when he's not taking pictures, Tony's studio is an exciting place. He's got wicked old cameras, the kind that have bellows and are made of dove-tailed wood. When you take the slide out of this beautiful old camera, you can see straight through it, to another beautiful old camera. Amazing.

I love the little racks he uses for the plates. Sometimes you can see through several layers of glass photographs, as if they were onion-skin-paper illustrations.

And he has even more cameras now than he did in this picture. It's getting a bit crowded in there. His newest camera can take a 12"x 18" photograph, I think, meaning it will take about £50 of silver nitrate just to prep the plate. Imagine getting the exposure time on that wrong! Correct me if I'm wrong on those figures, Tony! 

Tony doesn't love pictures of himself, but this is one I took of him last time, when he was making a mat for my first glass plate portrait.
If you're interested in the history of photography, or if you want a wet-plate portrait for yourself, you can't go wrong with Tony's expertise. The quality of his work is undeniable, and he's a great, friendly person, as well. He teaches wet-plate photography classes, and he does digital work, too. If you need an amazing portrait, I think you need this guy.

And hey, Tony: Thank you!

08 November 2012

Four More Years

On Tuesday night, I held an Election Party. It was a dorky, political party, mostly involving flipping between FOX, CNN & PBS, and touchy nerves. At least on my part. Very touchy nerves.

I found myself trying to explain the Electoral College to drunken friends who really just wanted to laugh at how weird everyone on FOX looks with their weirdly shiny (possibly inside-out) hair and upside-down mouths. Therefore, I ended up essentially explaining the Electoral College to no one. Evidence:

In the afternoon, as I tidied up and prepared for the party, I collected some of the American coins that have accumulated on our living room floor. "In God We Trust," they say.

And that night, around 1.30am (GMT), I found myself with my hands over my face, telling myself to trust Nate Silver, trust Nate Silver, when Romney was up on EC votes early in the night. Nate Silver called it for Obama, and he knows how to call it. In Nate Silver I Trust, I thought.

The night wore on, and of course, Nate Silver was right, and of course, Obama won, because America is NOT as broken as it sometimes feels. Yes, it is divided, yes, more than it has been in my lifetime. Four more years, though, of a president who does not have some totally nutty religion with magic undercrackers. Four more years of a president who understands the power of speaking well and with passion, who was once a community organiser. In a country where even the centre has shifted so far to the right, I cannot believe my bleeding eyes, four more years of moderation, intelligence, diplomacy and statesmanship.

At 6.30am, Obama stepped out to make his speech, and I cried. This night, this long night, spent with close friends and friends I barely know, made me realise once again, how much I miss home.

It's been more than four years since Craig and I started on our hopeful, exhausting journey. Four years ago, I wrote this post about Obama.

I remember back then, feeling like I should have been home, I should have been in Atlanta, to celebrate in my hometown, a town where Black people changed the country. I remember Craig and I being alone, on the other side of the world. We had no friends yet, not really. We had no one to share our nerves that night.

Four years later, this last Tuesday night, I missed home. I wished I could have voted in person, rather than with an overseas ballot. But I was lucky and very happy to have friends here who shared my nerves and stayed up with me, and celebrated with me. I am lucky to have people here who make me feel less alone when big things happen back home.

In the last week, two of my favourite things coincided: NIJAWEEN and the Manchester Science Festival.

NIJAWEEN is my birthday, which is on Halloween. I share my birthday with my mother. Same day, same month. Once in the 1st grade, a dimmer student asked me if we also shared the same year. I think that was the moment I first developed my cruel mocking stare. Poor girl.

And spare a thought, too, for my poor mother. 31 years ago, her birthday, and she's been in bedrest for 6 weeks. Her birthday, and she's carrying a 6 lb parasite who is fighting to get out. Her birthday, and she's having an epidural. Her birthday, and she can't feel anything in the lower half of her body. Eesh.

And all of that, just so I could hang out and drink and have a ridiculously good time with my friends from 5pm until 3am, and go to work the next day absolutely shattered, 31 years later!

My poor mother.

And this was my nearly effortless costume. It really does look like I've been slashed, right?

The next night, I went to see a Manchester Science Festival show. What Am I Worth, written by my friend Tuheen Huda, was all about organ transplantation. To tell the story, Tuheen used various elements that gave the performance amazing texture:

1. Audio clips of interviews with people who are either waiting for an organ, or donating one, or working in the field of organ donation.
2. 2 major characters. An unlucky-in-love transplant surgeon and a man who's wife is on dialysis and waiting for kidney.
3. A scene where the actors play organs, and demonstrate how a liver transplant rejection is something like being kicked out of a nightclub for wearing the wrong perfume.

The show touched on ethical issues, like how people in transplant waiting queues feel like they're competing for organs, by having to prove how sick they are as if they're in some sort of twisted X Factor scenario. The black market that sells questionably-procured organs to the highest bidder. The grief of a doctor who lost a patient during an operation. The grief of a husband who watches himself go from being his wife's husband and lover to being her carer and nurse.

It was an incredible show. And the discussion afterward really got me thinking.

Tuheen is South Asian, and we have always been able to joke about our nutty South Asian immigrant childhoods. It's part of what bonds us. During the discussion, he said that not only are South Asians at higher risk of needing organ transplants, due to higher risks of diabetes and heart disease, but also that South Asians are less likely to donate their organs. Of course, the best chance of an organ match lies within your ethnic group, so this means that while more South Asians need, fewer South Asians give creating a sobering mismatch of supply and need. More South Asians will die without an organ that could have saved their lives.

The day before I saw this show, I shared a birthday with my mother. If you've ever read any of my stories, you probably know that I can be pretty hard on her. We don't always get along very well, and she can be tough and she has a pretty cruel mocking stare. Yes. We are exactly the same.

But this night, watching this show, I was incredibly thankful for my tough, smart, rational, science-loving mother, who has not only always signed her organ donor card, but also always encouraged me and my sister to do so, as well. My fabulously unsentimental mother who has said many times that when she dies, she wants them to use EVERYTHING. And who takes care of herself well enough that when the time comes, a lot of her will be of use to other people. She will increase the South Asian pool of donated organs quite a lot on her own, and when you count her influence on me, the impact is even greater.

Thank you, Mom. I know sometimes the things that I love you for might seem like weird things. But there we are.

Also: an update to this very exciting post that was all about Twitter and Ian Sample!

Last Sunday, Ian Sample, the Guardian's Science writer, gave a talk at the Manchester Science Festival on his Royal Society Prize Shortlisted book Massive. Given that he and I had chatted for about the last year on Twitter, I thought I'd pop along to say hello in person. The talk was in the grand Reading Room of the John Rylands Library, which has a very rare example of secular stained glass. No angels and cherubim, just Shakespeare and Aquinas and Chaucer. Perfect location for a talk about the year's most exciting scientific breakthrough!

photo from: http://www.manchester.ac.uk/aboutus/news/display/?id=3692

I happened to be in the cafe when he was finished answering a long line of seriously hard questions. ("If the Higgs gives other particles mass, what gives the Higgs mass?" And so on.) He was going for a drink before he had to catch his train. I suggested some places he could go for a good ale before realising he meant to go have a drink by himself.

So, basically, Ian Sample and I had a hilarious chat over some great ale at Cask (one of my many favourite bars in Manchester). He liked my bike (Champion), and we got into a discussion about what I view as the heteronormative habit of calling all vehicles "she" and "her." Cars, planes, boats, all are referred in the feminine gender. To demonstrate my point, I made him read a really dirty ee cummings poem: she being brand new

We talked about the upcoming election. The craziness of the Electoral College. He wouldn't tell me what he'd studied at university. "Medical implants, it's boring," he said. I forgot to get him to insult me in my copy of Massive. That's a callback. I had a lot of fun talking with one of my favourite science writers (to be fair, I have quite a few). I think I just barely managed to not ask him to give me an internship on Science Weekly.

Then, some friends I was supposed to meet came by, and Ian left, and I finished the evening watching Moon in a very cold warehouse at the back of the Museum of Science and Industry, amongst friends.

It's been four years since I've lived away from home, but as you can see, it's been good lately. I could do with four more years.

ps: I've been kicking serious radio butt at BBC Radio 4. LOVE MY JOB.