University: Nottingham Trent University
This is a revised practice; something new, something old. The mixture of collodion, silver nitrates, albumen and chalk-dust directly echo back to the mid-1800s. Connotations of the ‘Sunday Best’, church-clothes for church-going folk, often emanate through the chemical mixture. For the contemporary viewer such plates are regularly considered something of the arcane, an alchemist’s brew revealing the obscured. It is this slow drawing of the ephemera that I desire to illuminate out onto the plate, whilst also studying the very root of the photographic practice and self-serving as a private interest in history. It is curious to note that, of those who have taken a keen interest in this process, a certain form of veneration and holiness creeps forward – the ‘Sunday Best’ is perhaps not entirely lost.
What are some standout moments from your time at university? The opportunities involved; being able to wake up, head into the building and feel excited about what can be learned, especially if a workshop is being hosted. Whilst this can be done outside of university, I miss sharing the experience with others and engaging with tutors. I was fortunate enough that NTU regularly invited practicing photographers in to the school for short evening lectures and demonstrations, these opportunities just don’t happen outside of universities and galleries.
What themes do you find yourself exploring? I have to admit that I’ve never really assigned myself a theme or a topic to explore, especially with wet-plate collodion and portraiture. I make photographs purely for the joy of making photographs, and with wet plate, the joy of other people seeing themselves appearing through the ‘black art’ of collodion. I suppose there is a recurrent theme that does emerge through the process though; both transient and perpetual, wet-plate photography embodies both extremes within the silver and without about a person’s mantelpiece, wallet or wall. It is something that every user of collodion has experienced and doubtless the reason why it ensnares so many. Once the first plate has been poured, the obsession never stops.
Can you talk us through the process of making your images? I’m not hugely comfortable in front of the camera, and I find that it translates somewhat to my direction of sitters. Due to the nature of my preferred medium, portraiture most usually requires people to be sitting and stationary. I try not to direct the sitters too much, or pose them beyond a “sit comfortably, and remain still”. I find that many people assume what is already a ‘classic’ pose for 19th century photography. That is, sitters arrive with a preconceived idea as to what is and is not appropriate for wet-plate photography. Sometimes it’s good to have fun though, and occasionally I try to with people who are comfortable with the exposure lengths.
Beyond the direction; each plate requires extensive preparation beforehand, burring the edges on glass, scrubbing with an alcohol-calcium carbonate solution and ‘subbing’ the outer edge with an albumen egg mixture to hold the collodion and prevent shrinkage. This is followed up by the pouring of the collodion, an essential explosive and mixture of various salts, alcohol, ether and nitrocellulose. The coated plate is then submerged in a silver-nitrate solution to create the light sensitive image. The exposure is made and a developer is flowed over the latent image, reducing the exposed metallic salts into pure metallic silver. It is usually this moment onwards where I show the sitter their image as the developed plate is bought out into the light and placed in a fixing bath to wash away the remaining silver halides. Finally, once the plate has been run through several wash baths, it is flowed with a sandarac or shellac varnish and allowed to cure over a gentle heat for several hours.
What was your inspiration or reasoning for using such historical processes to showcase your ideas? It is a binding of two things; history, specifically the mid-19th Century and the resonance of time each plate creates with the observer, the sitter and the artist. There’s a phenomenon I have noticed with this process, as mentioned previously, in that each sitter or person involved with the medium generally assumes the same body language and postures that are associated with an antiquated process. The emerging fight between modernity and history happens right there on each wet-plate, it is utterly thrilling to be a part of that.
Can you describe the challenges and barriers you overcame when it came to you presenting these images? There was definitely some back and forth over the correct way to display these images. The biggest issue for the degree show was to correlate the historical process with a more informal manner of display. Placing them on a shelf, without any form of surround or case was out of the question. I did not, at the time, have the capabilities to create the usual embossed gold leaf surround to frame each image. It was a struggle trying to reconcile the old and new without restricting the capacity to observe and the presence of natural light. In the end, I decided to place a selection of plates inside an oak box with a hinged glass lid. Each plate was raised and angled with consideration to the window beside which the box was placed and the average height of each visitor – the lid was left open.
Certain questions were raised regarding the plates within the box; were they being archived for posterity, is it fulfilling particular ideas about historical artefacts contained in a museum or gallery, and so on. There was a desire to honour the historical precedence for wet-plate photography but without the ability to place them inside the correct historical casing (thermoplastic union cases) or brass frames, I decided to take the next best option. Having them inside an open box maintained the semblance that these were pieces of history but allowed the suggestion that folk could pick them up if they really wanted to. I like that, forcing photographs to be tactile objects to be held, manipulated and ultimately cherished.
What are your future aims for this body of work? Simply to continue with my practice and hone the physical creation of each wet-plate. Beyond physical degradation, I have never seen an image from the 19th Century that was poorly made or crafted – each was a master unto themselves and their process. That is what I want in the future.
You seem very much inspired by the creative processes behind your work, but have you got a favourite photographer or writer who motivates you? Julia Margaret Cameron.
What creative goals do you have for the future? I would very much like to take the wet-plate process around and about the heritage sites of the Midlands and, eventually, further beyond. I'm currently looking to expand my practice and work within Nottingham City too, there's so many creative endeavours here that it seems silly to be missing out on all of the collaboration opportunities.
Do you think you would ever consider making a photobook? Do you think it would be appropriate for your images to be displayed in this way? It's difficult; wet-plate photography is an exceptionally tactile and visceral form of photography. The translation to print isn't always made successfully outside of contact printing negatives, maybe in time though.
If you could pick anyone to sit in front of your camera, who would it be? I thought long over this question but couldn't draw any names above others. Everyone?