This past weekend . . . I stepped back in time to 1860.
I had posted earlier about an ambrotype I purchased at a local Civil War re-enactment. I started reading up on the photographic process of that time and got hooked by the romance of it, to “time travel,” if you will, by shooting something in the here and now, and making the image appear using a skill that was over 100 years old.
And so I traveled into Central Tennessee to visit the very, very fine people at The Vacant Chair Photography Studio in White Bluff: Mary Lou and Sam Reed, and their lovely daughter, Betsy. These three artists imparted their wisdom, knowledge - and home brewed beer - unto me, initiating me in the ways of a collodion photographer. The Reeds are historical re-enactors for the period of 1855 to 1865, which encompasses the Civil War, but rather than be combatants, they are the itinerant, traveling photographers that went from camp to town to camp during the war, with their portable darkrooms. This process - especially with tintypes - provided a less expensive and less bulky method than the previous daguerrotype to send pictures of loved ones to the boys fighting, and for the men to send pictures back home as an assurance of their survival. And thank God there were such people - sadly, for many families, the only memento of a fallen son or husband buried in an unmarked grave hundreds of miles away may be the tintype of him seated by his tent, done by a photographer passing through.
|My first tintype. Note the sharper contrast between the ambrotype and the tintype. Here I combined old with new, to also include my "pocket camera," the iPhone.|
First, why wet plate? Because everything must be done while the actual plate upon which the image is made - glass for ambrotypes and japanned iron for tintypes - while any chemical coating is still moist. Let me give a quick description of the process:
|My first tintype portrait, of Betsy and Mary Lou Reed. Blondes show up exceptionally nice on tintypes, as Betsy's image indicates.|
- Focus the field camera. Not easily done. First of all, the image will be upside down as you look at it, so you have to get used to focusing that way. Second, it is done with that big, thick black cloth thrown over the back of the camera and you, just as you see in old-time portrayals of photographers. Given the fact that for this time period there was no "flash", you need lots of natural light. Which means standing in the sun. And it gets real hot really fast underneath that cloth, trust me.
- Tell your subject to sit still for a minute while you go and prepare the plate. If doing a still life, remove all curious cats and dogs from the carefully arranged setting.
- Coat the plate with the collodion mixture. This requires some dexterity, "pouring" or "flowing" the collodion onto the plate and tilting it to get a smooth, even coating.
- Immerse the plate into a compound of silver nitrate. This will create a light-sensitive coating on the plate. This is also why the term "black paws" originates - silver nitrate will literally tarnish your skin. Harmless, though, and it comes off eventually. Place the plate into the kit, or frame, that is in the plate holder for the back of the camera.
- Run back out to your subject. Take a final look at your focus but if it is getting warm, don't take too long - that plate inside the kit has to stay wet and chemical reactions are beginning. Assure your subject they look beautiful.
- Place the coated plate in the back of the field camera. Ready your stopwatch and take the lens cap off. For how long? Depends on . . . your camera, your lens, the amount of light, the temperature. These were long exposures, anywhere from 30 seconds to several minutes. It is a "guesstimating" step that gets better as you get more familiar with your camera and lens. Holding a pose or look for even 30 seconds is a long time for a person.
- After the exposure (and you have placed the lens cap back on), take your plate holder out - making sure to shut its dark back so no light gets in, as I forgot with one exposure - and head to the dark room. Remove the plate and place it in the developer. Within 8 to 12 seconds, you should see an image. Follow that with two baths of distilled water or filtered water.
- Now comes the magic. The plate may look cloudy but fear not - that's excess silver. Hence why the next step is to plunge it into lovely lethal potassium cyanide. *Sniff* Are those almonds I smell? Within seconds, the image is "de-clouded."
- Follow that with two water baths. Allow to dry fully.
- Seal your image with varnish. If you are doing things "authentically," this means holding the plate over a kerosene lamp until it's so hot, it is painful to touch. At which point you hold the plate, searing your fingers, and using the same pouring method in Step 3, pour varnish over it. Allow that to dry, and hold it again over your lamp to "bake" the varnish. Or . . . be inauthentic and apply room-temperature Renaissance wax (no heating the plate!) and buff. I went for the latter.
|An homage to my Irish heritage.|
I admit - the bug bit me. I will be now amassing the gear and equipment I need to do this for myself. It won't be cheap and it will take time, but it is an art form I want to do. There is something I miss about hands on developing of prints - I think I will go back to doing my own black-and-white film. It takes some effort, but it is fun.
|"Lucifers", a still life with onions and figs. I set this up to capture the reflections of the matchbox in the polished wood of the table.|
The effect is timeless and ethereal, I think. Mary Lou and Sam tell me that they are getting more calls for things like senior portraits and engagement pictures by people who want either the history or something unique. The Reeds are extraordinary artists. If you happen to be in Blountville, TN on June 23rd, stop by the Civil War re-enactment happening that day and have your portrait done on either an ambrotype or tintype. They are not large photographs, but they can be scanned to use digitally.