I started photography printing and developing my own black and white photos. I still have the gear in storage, but I don’t do much of it any more-to my shame. A few years ago I saw Ian Ruthers ‘Silver and Light’ film and was hooked on the idea of doing collodion based photography. I read extensively, watched tonnes of videos and even got as far as pricing chemicals and other paraphernalia (expensive) for this antique photographic craft. I checked online for classes and saw I’d just missed one. There was no further date available, so I contacted the tutor. She would give 1:1 or 1:2 classes, so I tried to get someone else on board to no avail. I let the opportunity slip and just lived with the regret.
Since then I’ve seen videos where Ian was shooting just using a Holga and I still hoped to do it….one day. Something happened in March, that prompted me to go and look for courses on Wet Plate Collodion. The Gallery of Photography in Dublin had one on the 8th May, so I emailed in assuming the class would be booked up already again. It wasn’t. There were 2 spaces left, so I booked straight away.
So yesterday, after a short nights sleep, I got the Gobus to Dublin. There were 6 attending the class, along with 2 assistants. There was a great regional representation, with Galway, Cork, Limerick, Mayo, Westmeath and of course, Dublin. The tutor was Monika Fabijanczyk, and it became really obvious throughout the class just how knowledgeable she was in the field of wet plate photography with Ambrotypes being her preferred method.
The class began with notes handed out to the students, but unlike other classes, we didn’t spend the start of the class reading through the notes. These were more like homework. Instead, this was a fully practical class. Hands on from the start. I volunteered to have my portrait taken for the initial demo. There’s two parts to the class really. Firstly most of us were using Large Format cameras for the first time. There are similarities to using older Medium Format cameras, like need to cock the shutter etc. The image is also upside down and reversed left to right-which is what the image will look like. The 2nd is the creation and processing of the wet plates.
The studio and class (The Lightroom as it’s called) is on the 3rd floor. The Darkroom is in the basement. There were more people than could fit in the lift, so there was a lot of stairs use, so maybe there was a 3rd part to the class: exercise! We went down to the basement and Monika showed us how to pour collodion onto clean glass plates. Gloves, aprons and goggles are used for this as collodion is dangerous, and when the silver nitrate is added will stain skin (it’s actually burning the skin). There’s a technique to the pour, and you do see it in the Silver and Light videos, but seeing it in person being described is definitely more valueable. Not to mention that a tonne of head knowledge only amount to a gram of experience. When the collodion dried enough to be tacky, it was smoothly placed in a silver bath for about 3 minutes with a little occasional agitation. Next Monika cleaned the back and then places it into a converted sheet film holder and added the dark slide. The plate looked milky at this point, and was placed face down in the holder. Up at that camera, the opposite side is opened for the exposure. With the plate ready, we went back up to the studio.
I sat and Monika prepped and took the shot. As the effect ISO of wet plate collodion is ISO 1 or 2, it means a lot of light and long exposures. First Monika checked focus on the ground glass, with the shutter held open. Once focused, she closed and cocked the shutter for firing. The holder was put in behind the ground glass and the dark slide removed. With the camera set to T, she fired the shutter with a remote cable. After a 10 count, she fired the release again to close the shutter. The dark slide was put back in and we all went down to the darkroom again. The plate was taken out and developer pored onto it. After about 10-15 secs, when the detail began to appear, the plate was put into a batch to stop the developer. Once the developer was washed off, it went into the fixer try. This is where the magic happened. Even though you can see the image after the developer, it goes through a milky looking phase in the fixer, but then appears properly. It’s really exciting to see-even more than with paper processing. Once ready, the plate in put in a running water tray to clean off. I’ll say this again: there’s nothing that matched being there in person watching this.
After this we took a 40 minute lunch break-no eating near the chemicals allowed! After lunch we all got our first go. Straight up- Monika made it look easy. But it’s not quite as easy as that really. You need to gauge the pour and then get the spare collodion back in the jar. I didn’t quite pour enough the first time, with Monika telling me to keeping pouring. Prepping in the bath was easy and then a quick clean of the back and into the holder. Back up to the studio to shoot my first portrait. I had Jason, one of the other class members sit for me. Then it was back down to the darkroom to develop. I really made a mess of the developer pour, with not enough spread around the plate. Pouring more only meant that I didn’t get an even pour of the developer on the plate. So after fixing and cleaning, it was noticeably streaked. However, I love it. I preferred the distressed look on these images, so messing it up was achieving rather than outright failing. That’s not to say I don’t want to do it right.
My second go had a far better collodion pour. I was really proud of it right until the moment where I dropped it, emulsion side down, onto the paper towelling. Doh! Monika said to try it anyway, and like I’ve said, I like the distressed look anyway. So back up to the studio where I shot Niamh, one of the assistants. I was still getting used to the camera-it was my 2nd only ever large format shot after all, so I unfortunately missed focus on this. Ground glass takes some getting used to, so I’m not surprised that people use loupes with them. I did a better job with the developer on this one. Very distressed from the fall, and some fogging, but I love it.
For my third shot, I changed from a black glass plate to clear glass. I gave the plate a good brushing and did a great pour. I was really happy with it. I shot another student, Toma, an artist from west Cork. She was super nice and I loved seeing this appear in the developer. Then, disaster struck. The collodion started to lift from the plate in the wash. We gently finished the wash and put it in fixer. The whole emulsion started to peel off. To save ot. Monika put it in a separate tray, and dried with a hard dryer later on. She felt the glass may not have been cleaned enough prior to the class, and that was why it lifted. The save was only partial and she recommended I scan it sooner rather than later. The drying processing didn’t quite removed the bubbles, but I’m still pleased with it. I scanned against black card, so it’s not as rich as the others. The blue white bits are excess collodion that the fixer didn’t have time to wash away.
My final shot was also on clear glass, this time of Justin. In terms of the process I felt far more comfortable with this one. Everything went smoothly. Pour, batch, focus, developer, fixer. No peeling either!
As the class was going on, we were moving plates out of the running water bath into trays, to avoid them scratching each other in the bath. The other assistant dried the plates with a hair dryer, and then Monika should how to varnish them with traditional varnish. Next she showed how to use Renaissance wax for a more modern and faster finish.
So how did I feel about all this? Well I was elated actually. It was far more fun that I could have imagined. There really is nothing to beat hands on experience, and that’s where I need to go next with it. I may try the Holga route initially, but a large format camera is a must for the really. I highly recommend this course. Even if you never want to do it yourself after, the experience is great. It also gives you an understanding of what photography was like in the early days of the craft. Monika is an excellent tutor, and her skill and knowledge was evident throughout the class, with her help when things were going wrong for me, or for the other class members.
I’m already searching for gear for this, and planning how to make it happen! I love the practical side of this craft so this is a great way to get back to it. Changing to Fuji and using retro looking cameras is great, but this? This is real retro!