A Bit of History
Wet plate collodion is an early photographic technique created in 1851, and the first that made portraits accessible and affordable for working class people. Traditionally glass (ambrotypes) or japanned iron (tintypes) were used. Wet plate collodion was the predominant form of photography from the 1850s until the introduction of the dry plate technique in the 1880s. Itinerant photographers continued the tintype business on into the 1930s, setting up studio tents at public gatherings, such as fairs and carnivals. The process has undergone a revival in the twenty first century and is practiced today by a handful of photographers around the world.
Tintypes are one of a kind and highly archival. Once the fragile silver emulsion is coated in varnish, a tintype can last for generations. Many of the tintypes created in the 1850s remain of high quality today.
Photo: Roger Fenton's photographic van used in the Crimean War, with his assistant posing on its bench, 1855. Library of Congress
How are Wet Plate Tintypes Made?
The process requires the plate be coated with a salted collodion mix, sensitized in a silver nitrate solution, the wet plate exposed in camera and developed before the plate dries - within about fifteen minutes! This necessitates a portable darkroom to process images in the field. The plates are then fixed and washed. The silver emulsion remains very fragile and needs to be varnished to protect the image. Varnishing is one of the most dreaded steps of the process, but is required for longevity. Gum sandarac and shellac are varnishes traditionally used.
With a vintage 4x5 Burke & James view camera and an antique brass lens, I’m creating 4x5 tintype portraits. I’ve been working outdoors with natural light, as the process requires a significant amount of UV light and long exposure times. This requires the sitter to hold still and be present with a slow process, giving them an experience quite different from modern photography. This process makes for incredibly personal, intimate and unique portraits.
I'm utilizing traditional wet plate collodion processes with a few modern conveniences. This process requires a portable darkroom to process in the field, and I've gone with a modern option that is affordable, portable, and already mostly light tight - an indoor grow propagation tent. My plates are varnished in sandarac lavender varnish, although I use a hot water tank and a hot plate instead of using the traditional open flame process.
Today there are photographers and educators are keeping the wet plate collodion photographic process alive. I had the opportunity to work with Portland Oregon fine art photographer Ray Bidegain, whose mentorship has helped me immensely along my wet plate journey.
Other modern wet plate photographers and educators I've been inspired by include Sally Mann, John Coffer, Mark and France Scully Osterman, Borut Peterlin, Joni Sternbach, Lisa Elmaleh, Carla Rodriguez, Quinn Jacobsen, Kali Spitzer, Shane Balkowitsch, Joseph Kayne, and Jason Chinchen, amongst others.