Imperfect Imperfections

... pure chance, the perfect imperfection, I’d call it. It’s that can really work, bring a plate to life ......... other times it can completely kill it .....
— Ben Cauchi, interview, 2011

Making a mess

Wet Plate Photography is synonymous with imperfections, artifacts, nuances, those organic remnants of the physical process that is part of the labour of love, making an image appear as an object, where there was once only chemicals and metal (or glass).

The 'slovenly technique' of JMC was her trademark of the Victorian Era

The 'slovenly technique' of JMC was her trademark of the Victorian Era

People love these artifacts, there are even apps that add a wet plate filter / artifact to your digital photograph to give it the "wet plate look". During the early days of photography and the wet plate process, these imperfections were frowned upon. One of my most favourite examples of the shift in thinking around the need for perfection to a more relaxed appreciation for that of a more organic nature is that of Julia Margaret Camerons (JMC) approach to photography (if you haven't heard of JMC, and you are interested in photography, I encourage you to go away and look at her work/story).   

Cameron was 48 when she started to make images, her approach was to worry less about the perfection of the process and instead concentrate on the subject matter in hand, much to the horror of the photographers who were part of the Royal Society (now known as the Royal Photographic Society). These photographers 'masked out' their imperfections, with oval brass frames, hiding all the plate artifacts at the side of the plate. Camerons approach was to show her work, 'warts-and-all', which was a chance for the technicians to criticise her 'slovenly technique'

Page 49 of 'Julia Margaret Cameron - The Complete Photographs' by Julian Cox and Colin Ford, there is an analysis of one of her plates of George Norman Wade, that gives an insight into her working processes and the precise moments where she experiences difficulties. 

Over the past 4 years, I have mastered the art of Wet Plate. Of course, I use the term 'master' with the chivalry of defiance, as just as I think I have made every mistake that one is able to make, I get smacked in the face with a new one. My images are becoming more reproducible, however, no two images are ever the same, and this is only after 4 years of intense mastering (practice). 

My work horse camera and operating size is 4 x 5 inches, as it is easy to work with and economical (well, as economical as pouring liquid silver on a piece of metal can be). It takes a bit of encouragement to make plates bigger as by doubling the size, you quadruple the cost. For example, if a 4x5inch plate is worth, $400 at commission value, then a 10 x 12 plate would be worth in the order of $1,200. Of course the material cost would be less then the values here, but that topic is for another day.

Now, I could pour 4 x 5 inch plates in my sleep (and I'm sure I have amidst a hazy fog of anaesthetic ether), so going 3 times the size to 10 x 12 means I have to re-teach my muscle memory. This is a recipe for some Julia Margaret Cameron style 'artistic licence'

A recent shoot called for my very own 10 x 12 inch Victorian era camera to be broken out when I met Clare, of the Waikato based 'Freelunch Street Theatre Company'. We had made a few successful images on the smaller 4x5 format, so we decided to go big. The resulting image was a spectacular mess of artifacts and errors which I will go through below, however, despite this, the physical object, then end result is still rather intriguing. 

The mess explained.

  • A = Pour off edge. This is the where the collodion is poured off the plate back into the bottle, it is where the last part of the excess collodion leaves the plate and is at its thickest. (see me pour a glass plate here >>
  • B = Hesitation marks. Here I hesitated, or lacked fluency when inserting the plate into the silver bath, allowing the plate to sensitise at differing densities along the surface of the silver bath (the plate goes into the silver-bath at a 90 degrees orientation (landscape) to what you see here.  
  • C = The assistant factor. We are out of focus in the eyes. Once the image is focused on the ground glass screen and the plate is inserted into the back of the camera, the sitter must stay rock solid still, there is no time to refocus,  otherwise we risk them moving out of the plane of focus. On this occasion a simple well meant "chin up" direction from my assistant caused our sitter to move her eyes out of the plane of focus. 
  • D = Snot. This is a technical term, derived by me. Whilst pouring the plate, a bit of 'snot' or debris landed on the plate, to be embalmed in collodion and silver for eternity. This snot can be inorganic (like a piece of fluff) or organic (like an unsuspecting passing moth).
  • E = Comet. This is a smaller version of snot, this is a piece of dust that causes the imperfection to have a wee tail, hence - comet.
  • F = Signature. It doesn't get more authentic than this, as part of the process, I handle the plate and in almost every one of my plates has my finger/thumb print (serendipitously).
  • G = Moko. A moko is a Maori facial tattoo. I actually have no idea how this artifact occured, I think I may have caused physical damage when removing the darkslide from the plate, which gave our sitter Clare an unfortunate blood nose effect, or more endearingly, the moko she didn't know she had. 
  • H = Orthochromasia. The collodion process doesn't see red very well at all but sees blue very well. Clare has a fine detailed red tattoo on her upper arm, which is rendered almost totally black by the magic of collodion.