Collodion

Learning Wet Plate Collodion

Mark Olwick

Me, as photographed by Quinn Jacobson

In the same spirit, when the automobile arrived, there were those that declared the horse to be the most perfect form of locomotion. – Man Ray

It’s the magic that drives me – turning light into a memory through alchemy.  That’s why I was so drawn to wet plate collodion.  I loved the aesthetic of it, but I’ve also been drawn to the process.  It’s tangible, with the glass or metal plates, the chemicals, the feel of a weighty glass bottle in your hand…and the fragility of it.  A millimeter wrong tilt of a glass plate can mean the difference between a failed experiment and magic.

At its heart, it’s an incredibly sensual process in every sense of the word.  It feels organic – alive.

As usual, I did my research and there was one artist working in collodion who really spoke to me visually – Quinn Jacobson.  This was a bit surprising as we work in two very different subjects – Quinn is a portraitist and I photograph places, very rarely with people in them.  But there was one common thread in that both of us are attempting to capture a soul.

I was incredibly lucky in being able to book a wet plate workshop with him in that Quinn is phasing out his wet plate collodion work and moving to Daguerreotype. His workshops are limited to only 4 people, which I found was a huge advantage in being able to learn interactively.  If you every have a chance to book a workshop with Quinn, do it.  He’s a fantastic teacher who goes beyond just technique.  The discussions about life and art were as valuable as learning how not to poison myself with the chemicals.

For those of you not familiar with the process, here’s an ultra-brief overview:  Wet plate was one of the very first photographic processes.  It consists of pouring a mix of collodion (a syrupy mix of salts) onto a glass or metal plate, dunking it into a silver bath to sensitize it to light, putting that sensitized plate into a film holder, exposing it, then developing and fixing it using other chemicals.  Once that dries, you varnish it using a mixture of sandarac and lavender oil, thereby preserving it for at least 150 years. The smells of the chemicals is unique to say the least – from ether to cyanide and then finishing off with the calming scent of lavender. How cool is that?

Will I be moving to this process as my main method of photography?  I’m not sure yet for two reasons:  1. I don’t have as steady hands as I did when I was younger and this process definitely requires that. 2. I love to photograph some pretty far flung and undeveloped places and there are some serious logistical concerns with shipping or obtaining these hazardous chemicals.  I’m still figuring it out though.  The one thing I learned is that to do it at a high level collodion requires a big commitment.  I’m fine with that, but I want to be sure for my particular photography.  The fun in the process isn’t enough – I need to be able to make the visions in my head tangible.  Still figuring that out.

Here are a few photos from the workshop:

Quinn Jacobson

My very first wet plate. Subject: Quinn Jacobson

My favorite (and most flawed) plate. Subject: Kyleigh Morgan (Quinn's assistant)

The February, 2012 Wet Collodion Workshop Crew - left to right, Mark Tucker, Vivian Keulards, Jeanne Jacobson, Jessyel Ty Gonzalez, Quinn, and Mark Olwick.

Quinn demostrating a collodion pour. Tougher than he makes it look

My first pour. A quarter plate on black metal.

Photographing Vivian

Processing using a darkbox, which I'd use on location

Quinn and I in front of some of his art

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