Natali and Laurent, wet plate collodion, by author

Why I like wet plate collodion photography

The world is broken and miraculous.

Last fall, I modeled for Vienna photographer Agnes Prammer (and wrote about it on my own blog here). Agnes is, to my knowledge, one of two professional wet plate photographers in Austria (the other being Stephan Sappert).

Last weekend, I attended a workshop given by Agnes and fell in love with wet plate photography.

Wet plate collodion photography dates back to the mid-1800s. It is a finicky process. If you are fast, you can prepare, expose and develop a single plate in about fifteen minutes,and any number of things can go wrong with the chemicals, exposure and processing. Few plates lack a flaw of some kind, and this is the first reason why I love it.

I am allergic to perfection and slickness in all their sterile forms. If it is not broken — and by ‘it’ I mean art, and humans, and life forms, and objects man-made or natural — then it cannot be miraculous. The Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, the appreciation of intransience and imperfection, agrees. And no photographic technique with which I am familiar (my knowledge of photographic technique is very limited) captures this brokenness and beautiful accidents as well as wet plate collodion.

Wet plate collodion is slow and mistake-prone. You can only do one thing at a time, and it requires your focus and attention. You pour the collodion onto a metal or glass plate and soak it in a silver nitrate solution to make your emulsion. Imperfect pouring of the collodion, or later of the developer, results in streaks, spots or other faults. The edges are almost always irregular, and beautiful. Exposure times are usually several seconds long, resulting in human subjects serious and often heroic-looking.

Another reason I like wet plate photography is this:

My life is full of appliances with covert functions. They are designed not only to do their stated jobs, but also a number of other, secret things: to force me to buy other products so that they can function,or other goods and services to optimize their performance; they are designed to become obsolete quickly, and ultimately to fail once their guarantees expire.

The wet plate collodion process is different. The camera is just a box with a lens at one end and a glass screen and plate holder at the other, and a bellows in between so you can focus. It does not correct for vibrations or focus automatically. It does not even have a shutter. Exposure is pure guesswork. It is designed to do a single thing - expose a plate.

It lasts for centuries.

And it takes pictures that capture the broken grandeur of human beings, our ghosts and disappointments and mistakes and beauty, better than anything else.