I got into photography from sheer stubbornness. When I first picked up a camera, people told me, among other things, that I was wasting my time, that I was ridiculous to think I could do it, that photography wasn’t for someone like me. So of course, it became the one thing I had to do. But my entire photographic life has been digital: equipment, education, process, community, and dissemination. I read about how much I’m missing out on by skipping the film process all the time, but only had the opportunity to enter a darkroom once.
Darko Ilic: On day 3 in Belgrade, Flemming and I met photographer and art historian Marija Konjikušić, a friend of my old friend and fellow transient, Carmen. Two days later we found ourselves on a bus to Darko Ilic‘s place for his wet collodion workshop (Facebook). Darko is a friend of Marija’s, and it happened that the night we met her, was also the night she was trying to arrange a wet plate workshop with him. She’d asked us if we were interested. We said we’d think about it, trying not to let our eyeballs fall out of their sockets. It didn’t take very long to say yes.
I have very little idea of the sort of photography that came before 35mm film. I’ve seen the boxy old large format cameras and know how they work in theory – light comes into lens, hits sensitized plate of chemicals and is magically turned into a photograph with more chemicals that might kill you – but have no clue about the practicalities of actually making a photograph with them. Until 2 days ago, I’d never seen a glass plate.
The workshop was held in Darko’s home in the lush hills outside of Belgrade. We were joyously greeted at the gate by a four-legged shag carpet called Oči, and given a presentation on the brief history of the wet collodion process, its practitioners, chemistry and process, which was extremely useful for us noobs.
Then we headed into the lab to put all that theory to practice.
Wet plate photography requires immediacy with everything – prepping the plate, shooting, and developing. The glass plates we used weren’t too big, somewhere between a 6″ x 4″ and 6 x 8″ (approximate as no measuring tape at hand). Darko had 2 cameras ready for us – Flemming picked the Reisekamera, while I went for the Goerz-Anschütz Ango, which took a slightly bigger plate.
We’d had to set up our shots beforehand, as once the plates were prepared, they needed to be used while wet.
Preparing the plate:
To do this, we poured a quantity of collodion solution on the plate, and then tilted it this way and that to spread the liquid as evenly as possible all over the glass, draining the excess back into the bottle. We tried not to spill any, though spillage was inevitable.
Sensitizing the plate
Darko had prepared a cassette of silver nitrate solution already, so all we had to do was ease the glass into the rest attached to its lid, and lower the whole thing swiftly into the silver nitrate to sensitize the plate to light.
The glass needed to soak in silver nitrate for 3 minutes, so in the meantime, prepared for development: measured out about 10 ml of developer in a beaker, filled a jug with water to wash the plate after, and got camera’s wooden plate holder ready to receive the sensitized plate. Once the three minutes were up, the glass was removed from the silver nitrate cassette, the back of it cleaned of the solution (so it didn’t eat away at the camera’s wooden plate holder), and slotted it into the holder.
At this point, Darko reminded us not to touch our eyes as this silver nitrate stuff makes you go blind. Right on cue, an eye started itching like mad.
Making the photo
I made 3 photographs that day – of a ram skull, Marija, and Flemming – each a process of making that I don’t normally experience. It took a goodly while to pick a spot, pose my model, measure the light (with a geiger-counter looking lightmeter, which you can see at the end of Flemming’s post), set the focus and adjust as needed. It took me about 15 minutes to prepare the plates with the collodion and silver nitrate, set the plate in its holder and then head downstairs into the garden from the lab with it in my hands. From there, adjusting my model, frame and focus again, before sliding the holder cover out to expose it to the light, and readying the stopwatch to measure exposure time.
Exposure was achieved by taking the lens cap off to let light into the camera box, and putting it back on again when the desired number of seconds had passed. I was a shutter!
Then the holder cover had to be slid back into place to keep the plate in darkness, before I could remove the holder from the camera and run gleefully back up to the lab to develop it.
Developing the photograph
I’ve mentioned my love for post-processing several times in passing on this blog. It was no different with wet plate; development was the highlight of the process.
The 10 ml of developer prepared earlier – a solution of iron sulfate, acetic acid, ethanol and distilled water – comes in at this point. Once the exposed plate was removed (in the darkroom), developer is poured over it and the plate shaken continuously to ensure that it covers the whole exposed surface and is evenly agitated. After ten to fifteen seconds of this, it got washed with water, and put in the fixer tray, where we tipped the tray occasionally to watch the image appear fully. When it was fully developed, the glass was removed from the fixer tray and given another rinse with water in the sink.
The varnish, which adds gloss as well as a protective layer over the glass, is made of Sandarac resin, ethanol and lavender oil (yep, it smells great!). But this is a delicate procedure which involves heating the glass plates and the varnish mixture over a naked flame. A smidge too much heat and the image is destroyed. I was reluctant to do this myself and risk destroying my three hard won photographs, so Darko did the varnishing for both Flemming and myself.
Darko is a patient and effective teacher, who was there to guide us through every step of the process. At the end of the day, I felt enriched, a little more aware of how much I don’t know I don’t know, and wanting much more.
Each of these photographs took the better part of an hour to make. It is a completely different process from my usual digital one, requiring attention every part of the making, from light to camera, to chemicals, tools and timing through all of it.
It cultivated a new appreciation for my digital camera, a tiny machine that makes so much of the technique of photography invisible to me. It made me appreciate the complexity and simultaneous simplicity of a photograph. It made me appreciate the practitioners and innovators whose work through the ages make photography what it is today, and accessible to the likes of me.
It also made me appreciate creating something over a span of time with my hands. I was a crafty child/teen who spent a decent amount of life making things with her hands (and neglecting things like school). These days, the only things I do with my hands is wrangle a keyboard and trackpad to organize pixels. It hasn’t been enough for a while, and getting to do this calls attention to that tactile lack, even more.
Now that I’ve had a taste of the wet collodion process, I’m hoping fervently that it’s only the beginning.
Darko Ilic and his workshops
If you are in Belgrade and are interested in learning more about historical photography processes, I’d highly recommend taking a workshop with Darko Ilic. Find out more about him here:
Thank you for everything, Darko and Marija.