Wet plate collodion photography – an almost lost art

Seven months ago wet plate collodion photography was only a far off idea. “Maybe someday I would look into it more,” I thought.

Rewind two years. I was photographing a wedding in Telluride and went for a hike to a waterfall. I was hiking around the corner way up a logging road and I saw what looked like a camp. As I got closer I realized it was a massive mammoth camera and portable darkroom. Out came the “Alchemistress”. She was shooting a project for the Telluride museum and creating massive glass images (ambrotypes). It was beyond rad and one of those small world moments! 

This past summer Kathryn was teaching a college photography course for summer quarter in Wenatchee. To be close, we stayed in our RV on a blueberry farm in Leavenworth. We “paid rent” by picking blueberries for a few hours a week. But, it allowed us to undertake the insane project to teaching ourselves the 1851 process of wet plate collodion photography. wet plate was considered the first type of photography that made portraits accessible to normal people.

Learning this process out of an RV with volatile chemicals in 100+ degree heat is not the easiest thing. Just to start, there is no one-stop shop to buy wet plate collodion gear and everything we did need has to fit in a small space. A year ago I could not have told you how the chemical process even worked. And the technical mechanics of completing each of the many steps of making an image, well, let’s just say it makes you feel like a beginner and clueless all at the same time.

Moving Forward

There is a lot I want to say about this analog, tangible process that creates one-of-a-kind-images. This process strikes at the heart of what is missing from a lot of digital photography these days. It strikes at our need for deeper connection with our neighbors, friends, community and a return to realness. And it strikes at our over-dependence on social media and digital forms of communication. But I will save those thoughts to another post soon.

This fall we made some great images on our 8×10 camera. And we just got an 11×14 camera so we will be shooting some massive wall-worthy plates this coming year. We would love to photograph you in Portland or subscribe to my newsletter at the bottom to stay in the loop for our next Seattle dates as well as a west coast tour.

I’ll start with my favorite plate thus far, of Lindsey. She looks like she is emerging from the mist. Dreamy, surreal, insanely sharp eyes and a one-of-a-kind image. It is technically a flawed plate because of chemistry issues. But that is one of the best parts of wet plate photography. There is no such thing as a “perfect” plate. It’s kind of like us, in not being perfect we are perfect, just as we are.

wet plate collodion photographer Lucas Mobley and Kathryn Stevens at Lake Wenatchee.
Kathryn and Lucas with their 8×10 wet plate collodion camera at Lake Wenatchee in fall.

“In digital systems everything is either one way or the other. Either it’s “on” or it’s “off.” There is no in-between. This works great for making TVs with sharper pictures, but it’s not so good when it comes to the rest of life.” – Brad Warner

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