vintage photograph with text 'Feature Article for RK Wet-plate Collodion Photography'



A Fantastical Phenomenon



The history of early photography, when light was being first transformed into substance, is revelatory. Writing about the wet-plate collodion tradition for contemporary photographer Robert Kenney involved lots of intriguing research into the initial processes and people (often itinerant chemists) made the first photographs happen. So many extraordinary stories.

painting of man writing with text Pull Quote

 “In the dark room, the glass plate is developed by free-hand pouring ferrous sulphates and then the revealed image is fixed to the plate by immersing it in a chemical bath.  This act of the image blooming to life is revelatory – you have no idea what you will see until that moment.

Barry Dumka 



A Fantastical Phenomenon

Developed in the early 1830s, during that great nineteenth century age of scientific advancement, photography was an instant hit.  A fantastical phenomenon.  Light was suddenly given substance and the face of the world changed.For the first 20 years a photograph was a daguerreotype, an image rendered on a polished silver-plated sheet of copper.    Unfortunately, like many first iterations of an idea, the daguerrotype had some drawbacks despite its amazing propertties.  Since only a positive could be made directly to the copper substrate, the image could not be endlessly reproduced as with a negative.  And the image appeared flinty and was easily marred – most daguerreotypes were sealed in decorative cases for preservation.  It was also an expensive and dangerous process, particularly as the photographer was required to use a mercury vapour to develop the image which often lead to neurological disorders.  But the results seemed to justify the risks.

In 1851, Frederic Scott Archer, a genial Brit, who worked as a sometimes sculptor and itinerant chemist, came up with the formula that would allow the emulsion collodion (then used as a clotting agent to treat the wounded during war) to be used for a much more ethereal idea.  The wet-plate collodion process was cheaper, more efficient, less dangerous and opened the field of photography to everyone rather than just a wealthy elite or studio audience.  In my opinion, the collodion process allows for as much craft as chemistry to be involved in the making of an image.    But first you have to know the rules before you can bend them.

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