Wet plate collodion is a photographic process that dates back to the mid-1800s. It involves using antiquated equipment and processes, including toxic chemicals and is difficult to master. So, why would a modern-day successful commercial photographer be interested in pursuing this? And what insights could his journey provide?
These questions were top of mind as I interviewed my good friend, Don Jones. Don has a successful commercial photography business and shoots everything from products and fashion in his studio, to architecture and drone images on location. I also know Don to be someone who never does anything halfway. If he pursues something, he goes all in. So, when he decided to pursue his passion for wet plate photography, it left me with some questions that I was anxious to ask him.
How Did He Get Started?
Don was getting burnt out as a commercial photographer.
I was at a place where my commercial work had started ringing hollow. It really wasn't bringing me fulfillment. I was at a low point.
A client turned him on to an idea for a project about a group of black artists in Florida called the Florida Highwaymen, who used to sell their paintings by the side of the highway since they were unable to get into galleries because of their race. About that same time, a photographer friend gave him a book on wet plate collodion photography. Don could immediately see the connection in photographing those artists with a process that dates back to the civil war.
I couldn't go down there with a digital camera and just go click, click, click. It just didn't seem fitting. Wet plate just seemed like the right thing to use to honor them.
So, Don dove into wet plate photography, taking classes from a guru in the field, Quinn Jacobson, and began the slow process of learning and mastering this technique.
What Has He Learned?
I asked Don what he feels like he's learned for himself as a photographer in this process. He told me that in pursuing wet plate portraits, he was able to start focusing on the connection with the subject in a deeper way. With a wet plate, he can match the aesthetic to the subject and search out subjects that fit with the process.
And, although he didn't say it, I would argue that one of the values of doing a process like this is learning to slow down. Wet plate is something that you just can't rush. It requires time and attention. Something good to practice for anyone in photography.
The more I talked to Don, the more I realized that the whole process sounds like a giant pain in the you-know-what.
Wet plate collodion involves coating a surface, usually either glass or metal, with a light-sensitive emulsion. You are essentially making your film. And that can be tricky.
It’s like making an egg on a stainless steel pan. You might get one just right, and then the next one is totally different
That sensitized plate must be kept in the dark until it's time for it to be exposed, and it is only sensitive to light until it dries. Once it dries, game over. Additionally, its light sensitivity is extremely low. Don said that he is working with ISO 0.5. So, with an aperture of f/4, that usually means about four seconds in the bright sun for a good exposure — not exactly conducive to portrait photography. Thus, you need a head brace of some kind to help your subject stay still. The temperature of the light-sensitive emulsion is also critical. You have only a 5-degree window of temperature for the coating, between 68 and 72 degrees.
Add to that the fact that the process is only sensitive to UV light, so modern lenses with their UV coatings don't work, thus necessitating finding old non-coated lenses. There is no shutter in these old lenses either, so Don had to make himself a Packard shutter.
Then, there comes the processing of the exposed plate. Once exposed, it needs to be processed within about 10 minutes, so you will need to get to a darkroom quickly, and a well-ventilated one at that, because the fumes from the chemicals are toxic. One of the chemicals Don uses in the process, in place of the more modern darkroom fixer, is potassium cyanide. Highly toxic and difficult to get, Don had to get clearance from the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) to buy the stuff. But he uses it for both historical authenticity and a warmer look that it gives his images as opposed to a regular darkroom fixer (remember what I said before about Don never doing anything halfway).
Don told me stories about how William Henry Jackson, the first person to photograph the American West, used to wrap the enormous 17x22 plates he used in a damp towel to keep them from drying out while he hiked down into a canyon. Or how Civil War photographer Matthew Brady carried his gear on a wagon that he referred to as the “what is it?” wagon because people who saw him at work were always asking: “what is it?” Don has had this same experience now with his utility trailer converted to a darkroom.
Working in wet plate has given me a new appreciation for this historical process and the photographers who practiced it.
What Does He Love About it?
So, what in the world could be the appeal? For starters, the process can create incredibly beautiful results. The photos are haunting and look like they are from another time, regardless of when they were shot. Don also seems to like the challenge of it all. And the happy accidents that occur. Don calls these the “angels of uncertainty.”
You are both a chemist and a photographer. An alchemist. It has the same joy for me that I first had when seeing an image appear in the darkroom.
I was struck by the idea of embracing a process full of uncertainty. That is so different from the ideal of the digital realm that most of us work in where it’s more about gaining ever-finer control over every aspect of the image and molding those images ever more efficiently into what we want. Everything is designed to make it easy. Software and cameras are geared to solve problems and help us, and there are presets and workflow techniques to streamline everything.
Perhaps it’s a good thing to have a little unpredictability as an artist. The trap in total control of every aspect is that a certain art by numbers approach starts to creep in. Just go here at this time of day, with this camera, process your images in that software, and viola. Wet plate photography flies in the face of that mentality.
I was fascinated to interview someone who enjoyed working with a process that seems to work against you in so many ways. You must develop your working methods in it, and practice, fall, and get up again. You must learn to embrace the “angels of uncertainty.” In the end, when you work through all that, the results can be beautiful and unpredictable. And really, isn't that more like life?
Don made the point that the practitioners in the early days of photography using this process were often highly regarded in the community and very well paid. It was a craft that demanded a lot of dedication to master, and the people who practiced it were compensated accordingly. We discussed how, in today's world, with ever-better cell phones and consumer-level cameras, the bar of entry has become so low in photography that commercial photographers are often in a battle to charge what they are worth. Photography itself has become cheapened in our society.
How to Get Started
When I asked Don what he would recommend for photographers who were interested in learning about this process, he said to get one of Quinn Jacobson’s books. Several Facebook groups deal in this process. Two of the public groups he suggested are Friends of Frederick Scott Archer and Collodion Basterds. There are also, as with everything these days, quite a several YouTube videos on the subject. Don said the wet plate community is very helpful and ready to share. So, if you are inspired to try, then dive on in.
To see more of Don's images head over to donjonesphotography.com.
I'm assuming he is borrowing the phrase "angel of uncertainty" from Sally Mann, another wet plate photographer. She writes about this idea in her autobiography. She uses this phrase in reference to Proust and his writing where he prays for the "angel of certainty" in his work. She is also referencing the same unpredictable accidents that bring value.
I've been learning and working with alternative photographic printing processes for the last 2-3 years (for some of the same reasons as Don Jones, coupled with a decision to have a "Covid" project in light of many impacts on the business-as-usual situation). All of mine are contact print/transfer processes to this point, the most challenging thus far have been the Carbon-transfer methods. I can very much appreciate "the Angel of uncertainty" comment with my experiences as well. Love the science/technical aspect addition to the photographic. That's it, just a comment.
Thanks Peter. Glad you enjoyed it. Best of luck!
Justin Sharp, you are right. The "Angels of Uncertainty" is a phrase coined by Sally Mann. Don gave her the full credit for that when we spoke, but I had forgotten that detail when I wrote the article. I realized this after reading your comment, and Don reminded me as well. All apologies to Sally Mann.
Hi Justin, you are correct! As Sally Mann so poignantly writes in both “HoldStill” and “a thousand crossings”, the process has many variables, each of which can create artifacts, the question is, do you feel defeated by the artifacts, or do you learn to embrace them? Here is a nice quote from a Sally Mann interview in 2019…. ” This plate has all that wonderful, swirly, almost metallic stuff going on diagonally across his body. I get asked all the time how in the world I did that. I have no idea. I know this sounds completely wacky, but I think it’s just a felicitous artifact of the process. I call it the “angel of uncertainty.” She just comes down and deposits something glorious on my picture.”