Denver, CO | Byers-Evans House | Wet Plate Collodion Demo

Last weekend I went to a wet plate collodion demonstration at the Byers-Evans House Gallery here in Denver, CO. Leading the demo were Mark Sink & Kristen Hatgi. Mark is a well know photographer living in Denver, who currently has a show hanging at the Byers-Evans House (highly recommended). He and Kristen have been collaborating on fine art wet plate projects for a few years and they share their expertise through demonstrations and workshops.

Wet plate collodion is an antique photographic process that was in popular use at the time of the Civil War. If you have ever seen an old Tin Type, you have seen a wet-plate image. The process is pretty complicated and involves:

  • Setting up a portable darkroom
  • Coating a sheet of glass or tin (they now use aluminum with a black enamel coating) in gun cotton
  • Adding silver halides to the plate (in the dark)
  • Putting the plate in a “film” holder
  • Composing the portrait on a large format camera
  • Locking the camera down and inserting the “film” holder
  • Exposing the wet plate for a few seconds (the sitter has to remain motionless)
  • Processing the wet plate in the darkroom
  • Waiting for the plate to dry
  • Varnishing the plate to protect it

Why would anyone go to all this trouble? The number one reason is that the resulting images are beautiful, with great tonal range, swirly out of focus backgrounds, and interesting imperfections from the totally hand crafted process. Another aspect that makes these images interesting for fine artists, is that the resulting images are one-of-a-kind originals. They can sell this original image like a painting, it is totally unique. Of course it is possible to make a scan and create reproductions, but there is only one original.

It was really exciting to see the process unfold. I don’t know that it is something I would start shooting, it uses some potentially lethal chemicals – 100% pure grain alcohol, gun-cotton, ether, and cyanide – but it certainly inspired me to think about ways to improve and expand my own portrait work.

This week, I pulled my old 4X5 camera out of storage and started brainstorming ways to incorporate it into my arsenal. That led to thinking about the pinhole photography work that I did back in college. Now I have at least two new projects to explore. That is something I love about photography, there are always new things to learn and new paths to follow. I will put this new work up on the blog as I experiment and test.

Below, I have added a few documentary images from the demonstration. If you scroll all the way to the bottom, there are four cellphone snaps of the tin-types that Mark and Kristen created during the demo.

You can click on any of the images to see them larger and view captions that explain what is going on. Enjoy…

Tech Info:
Canon Canonet QL17 GIII
Fixed 40mm f1.7
Legacy Pro 400 (AKA Fuji Neopan 400)
Ilford Ilfotec DD-X Developer (7min @ 20C)

Camera Scans
Sigma SD9
Sigma 50mm f2.8 Macro
Photosolve Xtend-a-Slide


Tech Info:
Cell Phone snaps with my LG Dare
A lot of Photoshop work to make them presentable

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