A First-Timer’s Foray Into Wet-Plate Photography

And why tintypes are the opposite
of Instagram

The 19th-century technique of wet-plate collodion photography, and the tintype process in particular, is undergoing something of a renaissance at the moment as digital photography prompts people to explore older analogue methods. Check out Joni Sternback’s tintypes images of surfers, for example, or Victoria Will’s tintype portraits of movie stars, taken at the Sundance Festival.

I’m interested in Victorian technology, so I wanted to give it a try. So did my wife Kirstin, for a rather different reason: she has been shooting a lot of film lately, and enjoys the way its physical limitations force her to put much more thought into each image.

So the chance to spend two days doing photography using 150-year-old techniques appealed to us both, because it’s pretty much the oldest and most fiddly kind of photography there is. In an age when photography has never been easier or quicker, we wanted to see what it was like when it was difficult and slow.

Fortunately, there are people out there who will show you how to do it, even if you’ve never been near a darkroom before. Our tutor for the weekend was John Brewer, who holds regular workshops in Manchester and London. The course was hosted by the Double Negative Darkroom, based in East London, not far from where we live.

The seven people on the course (including the two of us) all had different reasons for wanting to explore this old technique: for personal projects, to teach it to others, to try something new or to experience photography in its original, primitive form.

Glass-plate image of Kirstin and me. Image courtesy of John Brewer

John began by telling us the history of the wet-plate collodion process, which was the dominant process from the 1850s to the 1880s. Along the way, John repeatedly emphasised just how dangerous it was to mix the chemicals yourself. It turns out that you can quite easily create explosives by accident, and deadly poisonous cyanide gas. Fortunately John had mixed everything for us in advance, which greatly reduced the risk and complexity. (We wanted it to be hard, but not that hard.) He also explained how to operate the old cameras and lenses we were using, many of which were themselves antiques. Then he did a glass-plate test shot (of Kirstin and me, as it happens) to show us how the process worked in practice.

The wet-plate collodion process involves a huge number of manual steps: cutting the glass or metal plate; wiping egg-white along its edges; coating it evenly with a syrupy substance called collodion; making it light-sensitive by dunking it in silver nitrate for a few minutes; loading the wet plate carefully into a “dark slide” which is inserted into the camera; taking the picture; then developing it, which is rather like processing a black-and-white print.

You have about 15 minutes to expose and process the wet plate before it dries out. This is why photographers in the 19th century had to take chemistry labs with them everywhere, in black tents. There are a lot of steps, in short, and a lot of things to go wrong. And it was even harder and more dangerous without modern chemicals. We quickly came to appreciate just how amazing it was that people managed to photograph anything at all.

Kirstin with camera. Note the bowler hat over the lens.

For each image, we set up the shot we wanted first, so we wouldn’t waste valuable time composing and focusing. Then we went into the darkroom to make the wet plate.

On the first day we all made images on glass, and on the second day we used aluminium (images on metal plates are called tintypes, though nobody actually uses tin). Next we went outside to expose the plate. This process has an effective ISO/ASA of less than 1, so it requires long exposures, typically of between four and 11 seconds. You can’t use a light meter, because wet plates are sensitive to a different range of the visible spectrum. So John had to guess the initial exposures for us as a starting point, and we all adjusted as we went along. The exposures are so long that cameras of the period do not need shutters. Instead, we could just put a bowler hat over the end of the lens, remove it for the exposure, and then put it back again.

Then we rushed back inside to develop the image under a red light in the darkroom. This involves pouring a tiny cup of developer over the plate so that it is entirely covered, which is more difficult than you might think. Once the image has appeared in negative, water is used to stop the process, and the plate is then dropped into a fix bath, which causes it to turn, magically, into a positive image. It’s the fix bath that can produce cyanide fumes if you get things wrong.

Finally, the image goes into a water bath to be washed. When the plate is dry, there’s another opportunity to mess things up: coating the image with lavender oil, which again must be poured by hand to make an even coat, and only when the plate has been heated up just the right amount, from below, with a hair dryer. It smells lovely, though.

Our first glass plates. Note that the image does not cover the entire plate on the left; I failed to coat the plate fully with collodion. The black mark above my head in the right-hand image is the result of a different kind of fault: Kirstin coated the plate with collodion properly but failed to cover the exposed plate fully with developer while processing it.

Each of us made several images. A few of the plates came out perfectly, but most of them went wrong in one way or another, and we were all able to learn from each other’s mistakes. It didn’t matter that things went wrong, and some of the mistakes looked really arty, like my first glass-plate image of Kirstin. You can tell that I didn’t fully coat the plate with collodion, which is why there’s a blank area at the bottom right. Balancing the plate on your fingertips, pouring liquid over it and tilting it carefully to ensure an even coat is a skill that takes much longer than a weekend to master.

We all came away from the course impressed by just how difficult photography used to be. At the same time, back then it must have seemed like magic, so you can see why people were prepared to make all that effort. And when you see a picture that has been taken outdoors, it’s amazing to think how much equipment had to be carried around.

Given the immediacy of the process, we were tempted to liken it to a kind of Victorian Instagram. But we had the darkroom nearby and everything mixed and ready to go, which made it relatively quick and easy. For practitioners at the time, wet-plate photography, with its inconvenience and lack of portability, would have been far more laborious. There is however another analogy between the wet-plate era and modern photography — one that holds a lesson for us today.

The Google Glass of the 1870s

Wet-plate collodion was displaced almost overnight by the advent of dry-plate photography in the late 1870s. Suddenly there was no need to carry chemicals around: companies sprang up to make dry plates, which were much more convenient to handle and far more sensitive than wet plates, allowing for faster exposures. For the first time it was possible to take a camera anywhere and snap an image without a tripod, and without asking permission. The combination of dry plates and affordable cameras from Kodak and other manufacturers democratised photography, an activity which was quickly embraced by an army of enthusiastic amateurs.

The snapshot craze caused an immediate backlash as people objected to being “Kodaked” by “camera fiends.” They were worried that photography constituted an invasion of personal privacy, and that it might be used to capture images of people in compromising situations without their permission (for example, when wearing swimwear).

In 1884, under the headline “The Camera Epidemic”, the New York Times likened the spread of cameras to an outbreak of cholera. “Photography affords a very nice pastime to certain people, but the multiplication of instantaneous cameras has become a perfect nuisance to the general public,” one man complained to his local newspaper. (This episode is brilliantly described by Bill Jay, a historian of photography, in his 1986 essay “The Camera Fiend”.)

Tintype of Kirstin. It’s hard to smile for a 10-second exposure. And photographing someone clearly without their permission is essentially impossible using wet-plate methods.

The parallel with modern worries about smartphones and wearable cameras like Google Glass, which allow photographs to be taken anywhere, even surreptitiously, is striking. Efforts to ban snapshot cameras failed, except in Germany, which introduced a law banning photography without permission in 1907. Instead, new social norms arose to govern the use of snapshot cameras.

Today we are still in the process of negotiating the finer points of the etiquette of smartphone photography — is it acceptable for the president of the United States to shoot a selfie at a memorial service? — but it is now generally accepted. Arguments over the use of wearable cameras are at an earlier stage. But the history of dry-plate photography suggests that initial outrage will give way to eventual acceptance, provided the broader benefits (and not merely the drawbacks) of the new technology become apparent.

Going through the laborious process of wet-plate photography provides an obvious contrast with digital photography, but it also offers some sense of the earthquake that the advent of dry-plate photography must have caused. We’re used to thinking of photography as being divided into analogue and digital eras, but the transition from long exposures with giant cameras to snapshots with pocket cameras was arguably just as significant. That’s why the alchemical process of wet-plate photography is as far from digital photography as it is possible to get: in both respects, wet-plate photography is the opposite of Instagram. And that contrast explains why it is attracting so much renewed interest today.

Tom Standage is digital editor of The Economist and author of “Writing on the Wall: Social Media — The First 2,000 Years” (Bloomsbury). He co-wrote this post with Kirstin Mckee. Please ask before reproducing/republishing any of the images.

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