Why wet plate photography?

A couple of days ago I announced in Facebook, to gauge reactions, that I was considering going into wet plate photography.

So far, comments have been favourable.

However, this is not a decision I have taken lightly. It has been in my mind for nearly a year, now. I have done some practical research, such as knowing where to get chemical supplies in the UK (some of the components are legally restricted), and the cost of a 8×10 camera (the Intrepid camera is affordable, although I am still looking on the second hand market), one of the lenses I already own for the 5×4 format could cover the 8×10 one, too. I have found how to modify a standard dark slide to hold a glass negative, otherwise I would have adapted one by experimenting. As I currently own an Omega 6×7 enlarger with a high contrast lamp, that would provide the light source for contact printing – printers are also commercially available.

All depends now on my available finances.

A desire to get into my hands on a form of photography, with all its imperfections, is what is behind my decision, rather than the increasing popularity of wet plate photography.

Watching Sally Mann’s current work has a tremendous influence in my decision, plus a dismissive comment I read on an online photography magazine about her work, which went on the tone of : if the 19th century photographers could do flawless collodion images, why Mann couldn’t? That guy completely missed the point of Sally’s approach. The fact is that we don’t live in the 19th century any longer, but in the 21st. That is the approach than Sally Mann has taken, as I see it, it is not a question of reproducing old photographic techniques due to a sense of nostalgia, or historical curiosity, but to grab this way of making photography with a contemporary mind. On that sense, Mann’s technical mistakes in her negatives are intentional, as she has said more than once, and not the product of incompetence. That’s the beauty of her recent work: the imperfection inherent to the technology has been exploited for artistic, aesthetical, purposes. Otherwise, just stick to digital imaging if we are seeking only technical perfection.

Personally, I have grown colder and colder to digital photography on the past few years, after embracing it. My recent return to film photography has awaken my appetite for imperfection, for accidents, for unexpected results.

Crina Prida recently posted a Brassai snippet about luck and good/bad photographers: the point is recognizing the unxpected, even the unwelcomed, twists, opposed to our own ways of working and expected results, and embracing them, if they lead to other waters, which we have not travelled, yet. That is the intelligence of a good photographer.

I am not sure what I would do. Contact printing is an option. However, what I am, currently, and I stress the word “currently”, thinking is to scan the glass or metal, plates and further digitally work on them. Adding the imperfections of digital printing to the imperfections of wet plate photography.

My discovery of Kathe Kollwitz work on a recent exhibition staged by Hull Ferens Gallery was also important as well in my decision. Digital printing is more akin to that medium rather than chemical prints, to my mind. I have been using mate papers by Hahnemulle, Canson, Ilford, and others, on recent years. The results I have achieved with them are not exactly like those obtained with chemical imaging, they are different, more akin to print making. That made me think not only of Kollwitz, but also on all those reproductions of early 20th century Polish printmakers I spent hours looking at them on my mother’s art books. In a way, is coming back to those long gone years with the mind, and the wisdom, or lack of it, of a sixty years life. In fact, paraphrasing Picasso, I have spent a life time to see as a child do.

I still appreciate my smartphone as a camera, although.