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!

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