A to Z of Photography: Weegee and Wet Plate Collodion

A to Z of Photography: Weegee and Wet Plate Collodion

The cult of celebrity is alive and kicking, now seemingly the domain of the "influencer". However history is littered with photographers who attained celebrity status — step back 80 years and Weegee made the unusual step from press photographer to, well, influencer! This was long after the second of our two articles, which looks at the wet collodion plate process.


Weegee was a New York press photographer who assumed near mythical status because of his uncanny ability to be the first on a news scene, along with his unflinching tabloid images depicting crime, injury, and death in Manhattan's Lower East Side.

Born Ascher (later Anglicized to Arthur) Fellig in 1899 (Zolochiv, Ukraine), his family emigrated to New York in 1909. After a variety of street jobs, he joined the Acme Newsroom as a darkroom technician and this is possibly the original source of his pseudonym — Squeegee Boy. The name was later transcribed in to Weegee — a phonetic spelling of ouija — referencing his unnatural ability to be at a news scene before the police!

In 1935 he went freelance having spent a decade in the darkroom. This likely contributed to his style because he would have seen front-page negatives come in — he saw those scenes that made the greatest impact, and so earned the highest income. To be better than the photographers whose images he processed he needed to pick the best stories and be the first there. As he said:

What I did simply was this: I went down to Manhattan Police Headquarters and for two years I worked without a police card or any kind of credentials. When a story came over a police teletype, I would go to it. The idea was I sold the pictures to the newspapers. And naturally, I picked a story that meant something

1930s and 40s New York was a treasure trove for a photographer seeking the most grotesque of images to splash across the front pages of the leading papers of the day. In 1938 he became the first photographer licensed to use a police-band shortwave radio, significantly increasing his ability to cover a range of stories. His "brand" spread wider with MoMA acquiring a number of his photos in 1943, as well as lecturing at the New School for Social Research and editorial assignments for Life and Vogue. Naked CIty was his first photo book, a searing insight in to the tragedies and afflictions of the New York underbelly. More than that, it shows what New Yorkers wanted to read about. The title and aesthetic were subsequently used in the 1946 movie "Naked City". The pull of Hollywood drew Weegee westward where he worked as an actor and consultant through to the 1960s, including reprising himself in the exploitation movie The Imp'probable Mr Wee Gee.

It was during this period that he experimented with image distortion and montage, as well as traveling extensively throughout Europe. In 1957 he developed diabetes, moving in with his friend Wilma Wilcox who helped look after him until his death in 1968. She was bequeathed his archive of 16,000 photos and 7,000 negatives which were subsequently given to the International Center of Photography. See Roberta Smith's New York Times article for a good summary of his work.

He worked with a standard Graflex 4x5 Speed Graphic, common amongst press photographers. This was a large, handheld camera, first manufactured in 1912 (through to 1973). It featured a focal plane shutter capable of 1/1000 sec exposures and could take a take a range of sheet film up to 5x7, with later models adaptable to take 120 and 220 roll film.

The Speed Graphic was slow to use, in the style of a traditional large format camera. The photographer changed the film holder, opened the lens shutter, before cocking the focal plane shutter. The dark slide was then removed from the film holder, the lens focused, and the focal plane shutter released. If the flashbulb was set, this was fired, and then needed to be replaced. Fellig's initial model was likely the Pre-Anniversary 4x5, possibly using the Grafmatic Film Holder which held six sheets of film.

Weegee is generally credited with the saying

f/8 and be there

which is beloved of (35mm) news photographers worldwide because it balances the competing factors of depth-of-field and exposure. If you go with f/8 and use zone focusing (or the hyperfocal distance), then you can "concentrate on the moment" in order to capture the photo. Except he probably didn't say it! He did preset the camera which would have been required for fast technique under testing conditions. Low light, rapid action, and a slow camera led him to use f/16, 1/200 sec, and 10 ft. It's worth remembering that he used large format 4x5 film, which would mean f/16 was fairly open and equivalent to a full frame f/5.6. Unsurprisingly then, he went for a fast aperture, flash, and precise focusing, something he proved to be adept at.

So what of his work? What I like about Naked City is the warts-and-all approach to the daily life of New Yorkers, along with Weegee's informal introductions that begin each of the themed sections. This can segway from the smiling faces of a mother and daughter, to the motionless wrapped bodies from a tenement fire, before showing a face-down corpse, pistol an arms-reach away, then the jovial frivolity of a dance. Contrary to what you think you might know about Weegee, his corpus was about public life (and the not so public) and he displays it to the max. It is wide ranging, with the tragic only one part of it. What is noticeable when you look through the book is that, to an extent, it is like flicking through a newspaper. However pause and stop to look at a few images — Weegee is a master in capturing the moment, delivering a story, and engaging the viewer. To shoot one of his images would make you feel accomplished. To shoot a whole book? That takes an accomplished career. Give Weegee a moment... he might just surprise you.

Wet Plate Collodion

The 1840s saw the dawn of photography through the competing technologies of the Daguerrotype and Calotype. The first offered a remarkably high fidelity positive on a glass base but no option for reproduction, whilst the latter produced a translucent negative on a paper base that could be easily contact printed but was of relatively low resolution.

The answer was the creation of a negative on a glass base and this came in the form of collodion, a syrupy solution of pyroxylin in ether and alcohol. Discovered by Frederick Scott Archer in 1848, it involved dissolving gun cotton in ether/alcohol and then pouring it on a clean glass plate to coat it. Once tack dry (set), it was taken in to the darkroom and dipped in silver nitrate for sensitization before placing it in a film holder with the dark slide added. The plate was then exposed in the camera, before developing, washing, and fixing onsite (read a detailed description of the process here).

The plate was an order of magnitude more sensitive than existing processes, reducing exposure times to a matter of seconds. However the above steps highlight the single biggest disadvantage — the entire process needed to be completed in under 10 minutes which meant carrying a portable darkroom. This didn't stop photographers using the process widely, such as travel photographer John Thompson and aeronaut Nader who worked from a hot air balloon! The image below is thought to be the largest wet plate negative created measuring a remarkable 160x96cm, taken by Charles Bayliss.

Further chemical experimentation to find a dry collodion process was not entirely successful as it essentially involved slowing the drying time at the expense of sensitivity. Collodion remained the pre-dominant process through to the 1880s, however it was the development of the gelatin based dry plate process in the 1870s that paved the way for a step change in photography, accelerating to the production of nitrate film in 1889 and the Leica 35mm camera in 1913. The rest is history.

Other Ws

Other W's that didn't cut the mustard for this article include Wait for Me Daddy (image), Whipped Peter (image), Warsaw Ghetto Boy (imager), White Sands Rocket (image), war photography, Carleton Eugene Watkins, Edward Weston, Minor White, Art Wolfe, Wratten, Andy Warhol, Garry Winogrand, and Wray.

A to Z Catchup

Alvarez-Bravo and Aperture

Bronica and Burtynsky

Central Park and Lewis Carroll

Daguerrotype and Frederick Douglass

Exposure and Harold Edgerton


Family of Man

Nan Goldin and the Golden Triangle

Hyper-lapse and Horst P. Horst

Image Stabilization and Into the Jaws of Death

JPEG and William Jackson

Lenna and Leica

Inge Morath and Minolta

Noise and Helmut Newton

Paul Outerbridge and the Orton Effect

Panorama and Pillars of Creation

Wayne Quilliam and the Queen

Reflex Camera and Tony Ray-Jones

Shooting Sex and Strip Photography

Tilt-Shift and Train Wreck at Montparnasse

Ultimate Confrontation and Umbo

Von Wong and Vivitar

Lead image a composite courtesy of Skitterphoto and brenkee via Pixabay used under Creative Commons and Wikipedia, in the public domain. Body image courtesy of Wikipedia and used under Creative Commons.

Mike Smith's picture

Mike Smith is a professional wedding and portrait photographer and writer based in London, UK.

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Nice article. A couple of errors. , was actually a term used by post World War II, editorial, news and street photographers, such as Henri Cartier Bresson. It was such that on a Leica or Nikon RF camera it worked fairly well especially when developing by inspection. F16 is not wide open on a 4x5, and 4x5 is not medium format film.
I taught the History of Photography for a long time and Large Format Photography, as well, and I continue to teach LF photography currently.

Thanks for spotting those! The first was a typo - definitely large format! The second a miscalculation - I think that should be around f/5.6 full frame equivalent.

On the Wet Plate article well done. William Henry jackson went into Yellowstone on one of his trips with over 200 lbs of gear and still needed many Gallons of water on location. He did one shot with a 20x24 camera where he climbed 700 feet plus up a mountain, with the camera on his back. Set up, composed and focused and lowered a rope down to his brother who coated the plate. He raised as fast as he could, made the exposure and climbed down as fast as he could to process each exposure. I was told he made 4 exposures. So much for my camera is too heavy....
These plates survive and were printed again in the 1980s or 1990s by Chicago Albumen Works.

Thanks for the additional info there. I covered Jackson for J (https://fstoppers.com/originals/z-photography-jpeg-and-william-jackson-3...) but didnt come across that story. What we take for granted now, was a super human achievement then!!! Wet plate certainly posed its challenges