My guess is that most of you probably think that taking a picture with your DSLR or iPhone is pretty easy, right? Point, click, done. However, not all that long ago, it was nowhere near as effortless or convenient. Imagine you’re practicing photography in the middle of the 19th century when Frederick Scott Archer invents the newest and fastest method for creating images with light. This is his wet plate collodion process in a nutshell:
- Start with a well-cleaned glass plate the size you wish to make the image.
- Pour collodion* on the plate and tip side-to-side to coat it evenly.
- The plate is then taken into a darkroom where it is immersed in a bath and sensitized with silver nitrate for several minutes.
- Afterwards, the plate is loaded into the camera and exposed, ranging from a second or less to several minutes.
- Finally, the plate is washed with a ferrous sulfate and acetic acid developer that reacts with the exposed silver-halide grains imbedded in the collodion and turns them into metallic silver.
- After washing and varnishing, if you did everything right, congratulations are in order. You have successfully created a glass negative of the scene you photographed.
*Collodion had replaced albumen (egg whites) as the preferred substrate used to adhere photosensitive silver nitrate to the glass plate. Collodion is a highly flammable, syrupy mixture of raw cotton, treated with nitric acid, salted with bromide/iodide and dissolved in ether and alcohol. Harmless sounding stuff, eh?
This method for making photographs was popular for several decades until it was replaced with newer systems around the turn of the century like the dry collodion process and Kodak’s revolutionary photosensitive gelatin emulsion. Nevertheless, the wet plate collodion process is still being practiced and refined today. The resulting imagery looks both exquisitely beautiful and hauntingly old-fashioned. Enter contemporary photographer Ian Ruhter.
After using his life savings to turn an old delivery truck into a giant rolling camera, Ian has been driving around the United States creating truly one-of-a-kind images using a wet plate collodion derivative process called a ferrotype or tintype. Tintypes are slightly different than the glass plate process I described above insofar as they use a thin sheet of blackened iron in place of glass to create a positive looking image. Although technically still a negative, the metallic silver in the exposed areas appears light against the black background of the iron.
Be sure to check out this very cool video about Ian’s work and all that goes into creating his vision. Oh yeah, did I mention that is costs him $500 to make a single photo this way? That’s enough to make the newest and best DSLRs look rather affordable in comparison!