Wet Plate Journey – by Guy Rhodes

wet plate

Bronwyn Coffeen and John David Mercer pose for a wet plate collodion portrait on their wedding day in Mobile, Ala., Saturday, July 19, 2014. The 8×10 tintype image was produced using a vintage 1896 view camera with an 1880 brass petzval lens.

East Chicago-based photographer, lighting designer, and filmmaker Guy Rhodes writes about how he got into wet plate photography.

The technical journey photography has taken me on over the past twenty years has been nothing short of remarkable. I’ve gone from shooting 35mm film on a Canon AE-1 for the Block Jr. High yearbook, to shooting on my first digital camera in high school that had a whopping 1/3 megapixel (yes, one-third of one megapixel) resolution, to clacking away at ten frames-per-second on the latest Canon 1-series digital bodies. While digital technology has allowed me to obtain images that would have been impossible to capture as cleanly on any other format, there’s something about the digital workflow that lacks soul. I can’t hold 1′s and 0′s in my hand. I can’t accidentally drop and scratch a .jpeg file. I can’t smell a histogram.

Last May, I decided to get back to my roots with learning the process of shooting and developing large-format 4×5 film. I’d hoped that the 4×5 process would free me from the ultra-predictability of the digital world, giving me images rich with flaws (yes, I wanted flaws) and organic errors. To my surprise, I discovered that the Tri-X 320 film I was shooting, once scanned, was actually superior to my digital cameras in terms of resolution and sharpness. As for those flaws I’d hoped for? Well, the film images were pretty technically solid aside from the errant scratch or two from loading my holders.

While spending most of that summer ruminating on why I couldn’t mess up film more, I stumbled upon the wet plate collodion work of photographer Ian Ruhter. The ghostly images Ruhter was capturing, filled with cloudy streaks, lines, and vignettes, were exactly what I was after when I embarked on my 4×5 film foray. Interestingly, the wet plate process wasn’t completely foreign to me. I’d previously seen the work of wet plate photographer Robert Szabo at a civil war reenactment I shot in Gettysburg in 2009. At the time, however, I’d written-off the process as something entirely too complicated and dangerous for me to take on. Seeing Ruhter and his team working in their many videos, however, re-ignited my interest in the format, and I knew immediately it was something I had to learn.

Continue reading and see more photos on Guy’s blog.

wet plate

In this wide shot of the portrait setup, you can see lots of things going on. I’ve positioned the bride and groom on apple boxes, both to even out their heights a bit, and to place them against the inn in the background without having to place the camera too low. I’ve also braced their heads with c-stands to maintain critical focus (the depth of field of the lens I use is extremely shallow). Above me and the camera, an Alien Bees B1600 strobe in their new beauty dish provided a bit of fill light at the tail-end of the eight-second exposure (fired by hand with a Pocket Wizard). Off to the left, rockstar photographer Kevin Liles flags sunlight off the groom’s jacket and face. (Photo by Kyle Terada)

wet plate

Following developing, the image appears as a negative on the plate before it is fixed. You’ll also note that, due to the image being shot on an opaque substrate, it is flipped horizontally from how it appears in real life. (Photo by Kevin Liles)

wet plate

wet plate

My final, and favorite, exposure of the Ladyhawk. The intense heat and humidity caused the collodion (which becomes the light sensitive “film”) to tack up and start to dry far quicker than normal, resulting in these ripples across the bottom of the plate. How fitting, though, for a subject that is sitting in its watery grave!

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