Wet Plate vs. Modern Photography: How Far We’ve Come

Our civilization has come so far with technology; it’s incredible to think about how much things have changed, even over the last 10-15 years. Even compared to as recently as when I was just a teenager, photography was completely different from what it is now. I remember taking photo after photo with my old 35 mm camera and having to take my roll of film to one hour photo, waiting until they were developed before I would even know if they would turn out okay. Sometimes, a shot would be perfect. Other times, not so much. And I wouldn’t know until that moment was long gone, making another shot impossible. I remember that I would be so frustrated when something small would ruin a perfect picture….

With the advent of digital photography and editing, all of these problems are a moot point. Modern camera’s digital display give you the chance to view your photo and opt to take another shot if the first one did not come out. Small problems like stray hairs and background distractions can be edited out, skin can be smoothed out, and colors can be adjusted. Hell, the things a person can do these days with a computer and a picture would astound you. You can take a simple photo and edit it into a completely different image.

The sad thing about all these advances being so common nowadays is that no one even thinks about how difficult photography used to be.

Last month I did a small shoot with John Milleker Jr. who specializes in wet plate photography. What is wet plate photography? I’m sure many of you are wondering, so I’ll tell you a bit about it: Wet plate photography, or collodion process as it is also called, was a type of photographic development invented in the 1850’s in which a mixture of chemicals is poured onto a glass plate. When the plate coated with the chemicals is exposed to light, an image forms on the plate as the result of a chemical reaction. As John explained it to me, the process is called wet plate because you have to pour a syrup-like collodion on a glass or steel plate, dip that in a silver solution, expose and develop it (in a dark room, I must add) all before the plate dries. All of this has to be done in a span of about ten minutes. Wet plate was a highly inconvenient process which phased out over time, but some photographers still admire wetplate’s ability to capture incredible detail and low degradation period of the images recorded onto the plate, in addition to the aesthetic of the style….so it is still used by some photographers like John.

Doing this shoot gave me a new appreciation for photography. It’s nothing like the point and click style photography we are used to, oh no, not at all. For the wet plate photos, I had to hold my pose for anywhere between 8-12 seconds. This doesn’t seem like a long time, but the slightest movement can ruin the clarity of the photo. I had worked with long exposure photography before during my night shoot in the harbor. Those shots alone were about 3-5 seconds long. You would be amazed how long 12 seconds becomes when you have to be absolutely still in a pose for that length of time.

A lot of portraits done in the time of wet plate contain people who have neutral expressions. The exposure time is part of the reason for that. Holding a smile without flinching even a little for 8-12 seconds is practically impossible….I know I can’t do it. For this reason, people posing for portraits in wet plate photography did not smile. In this era, portraits of the deceased were a popular memorial. (It’s true; check out my pal Kaitlin’s blog entry discussing this strange but true old cultural phenomenon.) Those were truly the top models of the time, I’m sure. After all, it’s not like they’d move and ruin the shot.

There were some things available to help ensure your subject did not move, and one of those things was a sort of neck brace that holds your head up straight to ensure you don’t move your head during the exposure time. John had one of these contraptions in the studio and it was a very amusing thing to see. I’ll be honest, it’s not the most comfortable thing in the world, but I found myself getting used to it by the middle of the shoot. Imagining that this used to be commonplace for getting a photograph done was interesting.

I have to admit I was impressed with the level of detail captured on the plates with this method of photography. The vintage look of the pictures was also really cool. Check it out:

Photo by John Milleker Photo by John MillekerPhoto by John Milleker

The full set will be posted soon on my facebook page, in addition to some digital and black and white film shots I did with John’s girlfriend Christine Metzgar in between plates. I am hoping to work on something in this style again soon.

Until next time, friends….. 🙂


2 responses to “Wet Plate vs. Modern Photography: How Far We’ve Come

  1. These are awesome! So glad you were able to experience this. As for the part about having to wait for film to process and not being able to touch up stray hairs, etc I think that is where the beauty of photography truly is. That stray hair was captured and frozen in a moment of time and can never be replicated that way again. To Photoshop it out turns it into a picture instead of a photograph. I never used photoshop and I probably never will. Perfection just doesn’t tell a story. How many more interesting conversations do you think you will get from these photos over the pretty, perfect ones that you have done? …..Of course, I may just be biased 😉

    • I had a feeling you would like these, Kaitlin. 😛
      So far I have had a lot of compliments on this set. It was a really cool experience, especially watching John process the plates in the darkroom! I did darkroom photography in middle school, it’s practically a dying art nowadays. This shoot really made me appreciate what people had to go through to be photographed in the past.

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