In this era of digital photography, Instagram, and iPhoneography, it’s hard to imagine that someone is still doing photography the old fashioned way. To be precise Giles Clement uses a process that dates back 150 years. Naturally, the question that comes to mind is why? It isn’t just about doing it for the heck of it; Clement thinks it’s kind of addictive. He never gets bored with it:
Wet Plate Collodion Process
The wet plate collodion process gets its name from the fact that it involves the use of wet chemicals. Collodion is prepared using cotton, alcohol, ether, and acid. It’s poured onto a piece of black glass. The glass piece is then dumped into a tank of silver nitrate which reacts with the collodion and creates a light sensitive surface. The light sensitive glass plate is then loaded into the back of a metal frame that has an opaque slide. The whole thing is then loaded into the back of a camera.
The wet plate collodion process was developed back in 1851 and was used until about 100 years ago. The process took a back seat to the in-thing those days—film—which in turn got shoved off by digital photography later on. Without photographers like Clement, the process would have completely taken the route of the Dodo.
The lens Clement uses for taking pictures with this process was built in—brace yourself—1849! It was designed for cameras that pre-dates the wet plate process. When a subject is ready to be photographed, the wet plate is loaded at the back of the camera, the lens cap, which is actually a black hat, is taken off, and the plate is exposed. A flash is fired the instant the exposure is made.
In order to develop the plate, Clement pours the developer directly onto it. As the plate is developed, a negative image appears. The developed plate is then placed in a tank containing the fixer. This is where the magic happens. The final image appears seemingly out of nowhere.
So with all the technology that we do have at our disposal today, why even bother doing something like this? Clement explains, “Digital picture and Instagram or whatever—it’s here one second and you forget about it the next. It’s on your hard drive somewhere and this is something that you can hang on your wall and it’s going to last for 200 years or more.”
For those who started off in film and for whom the darkroom was actually a small dark room where images came to life, the gradual and painful death of film is a very disconcerting experience. For them, the process of developing a roll of film and watching it come to life was an integral part of photography itself. It was painstaking work, but it was highly satisfactory at the end of the day. The wet plate process just takes that satisfaction level a rung higher.
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