Despite the winter storm blanketing the nation in sheets of powdery snow and shimmering ice, Thomas Gibson Studio is trekking east to Rochester, New York, to pick up what is sure to become a staple at the studio: a custom-made 20 x 24 collodion wet-plate camera hand-crafted from cherry wood by a local upstate designer.
Wet-plate photography dates back to the 1800s, introduced by photographer Frederick Scott Archer. The wet-plate process involves dissolving bromide, iodide or chloride salts in collodion (which is why we sometimes call it the “collodion process”) and spreading the mixture onto clean glass plates that are then soaked in a solution of silver nitrate and water and exposed to the camera while still wet. This produces a negative image that can be reproduced a number of times.
Even with the obvious developments in photography since the times of Archer, collodion wet-plate photography remains popular for its charming, old-world aesthetic appeal. I’m ecstatic to add this rare wet-plate camera – one of only possibly four in operation in the United States – to my studio, which also features a conventional wet-plate dark room.
At my rural Kansas studio, I’ve been incorporating collodion wet-plate techniques in works such as “The Gatekeeper,” “The Reveller,” “The Projectionist” and “The Eptomologist.” All of these pieces are part of a bigger series of works entitled “The Occupationalists,” which pays homage to some of the more unusual professions in our history. I was inspired to capture these careers in north light using the collodion process after revisiting Irving Penn’s brilliant book, “Small Trades.” In “Small Trades,” Penn immortalized France’s street vendors in a simple yet chic manner – and in north light. I was so taken by Penn’s craft – the way he caught the emotion of the “everyday” and “mundane” worker without losing respect for their being – and subject matter that I decided to adapt the idea to what piqued my own interests – the odd jobs of the world. A healthy mix of the real and the surreal combine to bring out the historical significance in these jobs, and what better way to illustrate that than with collodion composition? This year, I hope to add more collodion compositions to these 20 pieces produced in my north light studio – with the help of my new custom-made wet-plate camera.
Besides picking up my new wet-plate camera in Rochester, I’ll also be participating in a salt-printing process class with France Scully Osterman. The Ostermans have been have been instrumental in collodian wet-plate photography’s revival amongst mainstream and fine-arts photographers around the globe.
It’s sure to be an inspiring workshop that will help me push my creativity to the next level – which means even more intricate, distinct designs and portraits to add to upcoming galleries and exhibits. These additional trainings will also benefit the local community as I gear up to offer an “Introduction to Ambrotypes” workshop at my studio this spring. Stay tuned to my revamped blog in the coming weeks; here, I’ll be sharing more exclusive collodion wet-plate photography expertise – along with more shots of (and more shots with) my beautiful new wet-plate camera.
Even though I don’t even have my hands on this wet-plate camera just yet, I’ve already slated its first project. Debuting in 2012, “Living Legends” will be the first project shot with this custom collodion wet-plate camera. “Living Legends” is a celebration of real-world influencers from every genre, from musicians who dedicate their talents to charity to inventors who change the way we live in our world. At this point, I’m scouting nearly 50 of my favorite living legends to capture in this collodion wet-plate project. My crew of production experts, writers, art directors, stylists and photographers will help make “Living Legends” comes to life. Upon completion of the project, “Living Legends” will grow many legs – from a series of national gallery shows, e-books for your computers and mobile devices and of course, a beautiful, real-paper, hardback coffee table book available on-demand.
What experiences do you have with collodion wet-plate photography? Tell me about them in the comments section.
TG Thomas Gibson/Thomas Gibson Studio