Ambrotypes and the Unique Process

I've been a bit unsatisfied with digital photography, mostly because I miss the old darkroom that I had back in Maryland. I miss the sound of running water, and the smell of fixer on my fingers. Mostly, though, I miss the hands on feeling that you don't get with digital photography. Printing digitally consists of making sure the paper feeds correctly into the printer, and clicking 'OK'. I'm not saying it's better or worse; it's just that I associate photography and art-making with crafts, manual cleverness, building stuff, making things - messing with stuff.

A year ago, a friend of mine suggested that I look into the Scully/Osterman workshops on antique photography. It seemed like a good idea, so I signed up for it, went, and had a good time. The wet-plate process appealed to me immediately for several reasons:

  1. It's very hands on. You're mixing your own chemicals for emulsions, pouring them, modifying your camera for wet plates, re-learning lighting, etc.
  2. The resulting images have a uniquely old-school look to them.
  3. You get to mess with chemicals that can kill you.
  4. The process can be used to make one-off artworks that are unique. Each finished image is a one of a kind object which cannot be duplicated by clicking "OK" over and over.

It's point #2 (the look) that I want to pay attention to, for a minute. I've generally ignored alternative process photography because I get bored by the 'equipment geeks' it attracts. I realize, as I write that, that I might be accused of hypocrisy, but it seems to me that the annals of alternative process are filled with boring still lifes that could more aptly be named "test image that finally turned out #14." The 'equipment geeks' are the guys who start with the gear and work backwards toward an image; I want to start with a concept and orient my process toward achieving my goal. For example, that's why I've done a lot with stock photography since I "went digital" - stock is inherently aligned with digital photography because photoshop is largely the vehicle for photomanipulation. See what I mean? Shooting stock on film would be bizzarely overcomplicated and wouldn't give better results than sticking with digital capture. Anyhow, I like to start with "what am I trying to do?" and then work backward from there, rather than "now I have an antique anastigmat lens, let me figure out what to do with it."

The part I immediately loved about the ambrotypes is the tonal range and the expressive options available from producing your images on glass. There's clear glass, obviously, but some ambrotypists produce their images on dark glass (for the same reason that tintypes are produced on japanned-black metal plates) the "black" part of the image is actually transparent but if you make your image on black material, then the tonal range comes out correctly. I really love how it looks - in fact, it immediately made me think of infrared film, which I shot miles of back in the early 1990s. By starting to gear up for ambrotypes, I started to think about what new expressive options were opening up for me, and I realized that I had the opportunity to go "forward into the past!"

(Judy's hand and towel, Konica Infrared 1997)

I got interested in infrared film in the mid 1990s because I loved the dark, silky tones that it produced. I thought that they were an ideal medium for soft, subtly unsettling fetishy images. At the time I was a beginner, and I wasn't technically skilled enough to express my vision, so I settled for just taking pictures that were pretty. I've decided to revisit that concept, taking advantage of the expressive properties of basing my images on black glass. Besides, did I mention that it gives me an excuse to play around with really nasty toxic chemicals?

A bit about the ambrotype process

Ambrotypes are the ancestral photographic process that Henry Fox Talbot figured out, which evolved into the negative/positive film photography that dominated the art-form until digital obsoleted it at the turn of the century. To produce the image, a plate (glass, metal, whatever) is coated with a thin film of substrate containing bromine/iodine salts. The substrate is immersed in a tank of silver nitrate solution to sensitize it to light, placed in a camera while still wet (hence the "wet plate") and exposed. The exposed plate is then developed, reducing the silver halides that were altered by light into metallic silver, and the unaltered halides are rinsed out ("fixed") with some kind of clearing agent that dissolves them. For classical collodion ambrotypes, the developer is Iron Sulfate if you want a positive image, or one of a variety of other developers if you want a negative. The clearing bath is potassium cyanide. Today's wet-plate photographers still use the original chemicals, which are a bit harder to come by and a lot more expensive than they were in the 1860s. The plate-coating substrate ("collodion") is a mixture of cellulose dissolved in nitric acid, then thinned with ether and ethanol - a highly flammable and rather intense-smelling substance to work with.

( The door is locked 2010 )

To do wet-plate work in a modern camera, you need to modify the camera to hold a wet-plate holder, or alter a modern film holder to carry a glass plate. For my photos, I modified a set of negative holders for my 8x10 Cambo view camera. Then I spent months of frustration experimenting with getting my chemistry and processes right. That frustration was shared with a number of models, who sat patiently while I ran back and forth alternately scratching my head, cursing, and saying "I think I've got it, this time..." The plates you see here were shot with exposure times on the order of 30 seconds to 1 minute. Contrast that with most of the other photos of mine that you've seen, which were shot using studio strobes in 1/125 of a second. A modern digital camera like my Canon 5D can shoot high quality images at ISO 800 (it'll go up to 3200) - it can practically see in the dark. Wet-plate processes' sensitivity is about ISO 2. To shoot wet-plate by artificial light, you need great big banks of light up into the ultraviolet spectrum; you generally wind up shooting with the lens wide open, which means that you've got a very shallow depth of field with an 8x10.

When you finally get a plate that you're happy with, you wash it, allow it to dry, and then carefully pour a coat of varnish over it to protect it. The varnish is made of a mixture of gum sandarac (sandalwood tree sap) ethanol, and lavender oil - it smells great and bursts into violent flame if you ignite it. If you don't like the plate, you can always wipe it off with more alcohol, clean it, and re-coat and shoot it. I like the fact that you can erase your mistakes, instead of seeing them piling up in the trash-bin, embarrassing you.

Everything about wet-plate is, basically, 180 degrees the opposite of what I've gotten used to in the last decade. That's why I'm having so much fun. And, did I mention that I get to play with chemicals that can poison me, blow me up, or poison me and then blow me up?

The Boxes

One of the reasons I was drawn to wet-plate processes was because the images that are produced are one of a kind. There's no "click OK" to make infinite numbers of prints - each plate is the only existing copy of the artwork. I like that idea; it creates a sense of impermanence, since a glass plate can pretty quickly become nonexistent in the hands of a klutz. I thought that it would be fun to make the images into a complete artwork, by constructing them into permanently sealed boxes. I thought it would be fun, and I figured I'd experiment with different ways of mounting the images in the boxes, backing them, etc. It's just another part of the creative process to explore in addition to the image-making. Again, I got to have tremendous fun designing the boxes and building a set of table-saw jigs to allow me to accurately and somewhat efficiently make them.

( Memories of my time as a slave, 2010 )

The Secret Master Plan

If I keep making these plates and boxes, I'll be up to my neck in them before I know what hit me, so I'm going to get rid of them. Here's how I'm going to do it:
I'll sell them on Ebay, with a starting price of $1.

The first one is here: [link]

I keep asking myself, and other artists here, "what is the meaning of 'hits'?" and "what is the value of an approving comment?" I don't make my art for a living (I have a 'day job') so I'm in a unique position to do an experiment and see how much my art is worth to the people who matter: you. I suppose I could play the game and try to find a gallery that would carry my stuff, but - ugh - all the ass kissing and drinking cheap chablis - there's only so much of that I can tolerate before I start to lose my mind. That would quickly become "work" and I'm not looking for that. I'm not doing this for notoriety or the money, or anything like that; I just want to see how valuable my art really is to other people.

Over the next - I don't know - however long I keep making these things, I will periodically post one of these boxed ambrotypes here and on my personal website. When I do that, I'll also list the boxed plate on Ebay and include a link to it on the image.

Let's see what happens, shall we?