So far this blog has been long on pictures and short on words. Lucky you. I figured it was time to actually write something, and now was as good a time as any to explain how I got into all this giant cameras and funky antique process stuff. The story of it kind of mirrors the story of how I got in to photography to begin with- almost by accident.
I started doing photography after college, as something to do while looking for a job. I originally thought I would learn JUST enough to use it to record subject matter for painting and drawing. It was a means to an end. That plan went out the window when I saw my first negatives come out of the developing tank, and was even more firmly convinced that this was the thing for me when that first print appeared in the red-lit tray on a rack in my bathtub.
Back maybe six or eight years ago, there was this big scare that Ilford might go bankrupt and that silver gelatin paper might go away, and maybe even film too. Well, I was so much in love with wet darkroom printing that I figured it was time to learn how to do hand-coated processes so I could keep using my 4×5 that I liked so much. I didn’t realize what a Pandora’s box this would open. Prior to this epiphany, I was only vaguely conscious of the existence of antique/alternative processes. I knew cyanotypes existed, and someone in a class I took once did some VanDyke Brown prints on fabric. I saw a handful of platinum prints at the View Camera conference, but that was about it.
That event was I think the turning point for me because it was there that I also saw people working in wet plate collidion. My eyes were opened to the possibility of what could be done without commercially manufactured products. After seeing some more prints,
I decided I would try platinum printing. I was mostly shooting 2 1/4 inch square roll film with some 4×5 mixed in at the time, and 4×5 negatives were big enough to learn on, but platinum like almost all other alternative/antique processes is mostly insensitive to non-UV light. This means that you can’t enlarge an image to whatever size print you want from a small negative- you have to work from a negative the size you want the finished print to be.
Realizing the limits of 4×5 prints rather quickly, an 8×10 camera ensued. 8×10 is a beautiful size print but a pain in the ass of a camera. Along came my Argentina trip and a 5×7 joined the family. And so on. Platinum printing became my mainstay as I grew to love the medium for itself, to the point that I have all but retired my enlargers, and only work in contact printed alternative processes. I’ve dabbled in wet plate and I’ve even learned how to make daguerreotypes.
This is my medium, these are my processes, and this is the how and why I make my photos.
Well, here’s a piece of ambition for you- getting this 12×15 W. Watson & Sons 12×15 inch “field” camera restored and up and running again. The W.Watson & Sons dates to around 1880. Once it is up and running, I’m planning on putting a nice 16″ (405mm) Kodak f4.5 Portrait meniscus lens on it.
The biggest hassle will actually be getting new film holders made for it, since it’s a bit of an exotic size to begin with, and it was originally designed for glass dry plates, not film. I’ve got someone lined up for the film holders – it’s just a matter of negotiations and finding the time to have them made.
I’m shopping around for new bellows for it because I’m just too damn lazy to make my own – this would be a simple case to do because the bellows are square and not tapered (I had a fragment of the original bellows but they were too rotted to use for anything, and they stank something awful).
Making the new ground glass will be easy – I just have to get some reasonably accurate measurements from the ground glass frame, go to the hardware store and have them cut me a piece, then get busy with the valve grinding compound. By the time I’m done with it, I’ll have a very buff left arm.
I was very lucky really, that the camera was in as good a shape as it is – when it arrived from the UK, it was quite filthy and looked like it needed a complete stripping and rehab. With a bit of cleaning and some olive oil, the mahogany came back quite nicely, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the brass hardware was originally gilded, and that much of the gilding remained.
One of the great pleasures of alt process printing is that it gives you complete and total freedom of paper choice. Not all papers will work of course, but you can always experiment. I recently dug out some old negatives to give a try with a Japanese Kozo paper, the lightweight variety which is very thin, translucent, but still has excellent wet strength. It’s a very soft paper, so it loses detail, and lends itself to images that have perhaps too much to be flattering – a great portrait paper.
These are some nudes I did with it of a transgender friend of mine – traditional develop-out Palladium prints to give that nice rich brown tone to the shadows. I think the Kozo paper works very well with these images because it also implies the skin nature of the image – a surface with a depth behind it. It’s a comment on the nature of being trans – that the skin of a person is just one layer of who they are.
This image is a simple two-color gum bichromate print. Burnt Sienna and yellow ochre if memory serves correctly. Both layers were manipulated with a watercolor brush to create texture in the background.
As I’ve been collecting images, especially photos more than a century old, I get curious about what I find. Who was this person? Where were they from? What did they do? Where was this photo taken? Oftentimes, those anonymous images are destined to remain that way, completely unidentifiable. However, sometimes you can do some digging and find out some really amazing things about your images. Three examples:
I found this CDV by Matthew Brady on Ebay. The location was unspecified. Given that it was taken by his New York studio, I guessed it was also in New York state somewhere. New York has a number of wineries, so I figured it might very well be the Taylor Winery. Google is your friend on such quests – I did a Google Image search for Taylor Winery, and was coming up a bit short, but by happenstance I found a photo of the Pleasant Valley winery building which looked an awful lot like the main building in the photo. Further research on Pleasant Valley showed that the winery was the first bonded winery in the United States, and that it opened its doors in 1860. Perfect timing for a CDV by Brady, who might have actually taken this photo (and not one of his assistants, which was common) given that the Civil War had not yet started, and he would have had time to travel to Hammondsport from New York City to take the photographs himself.
Another Ebay acquisition. This one took a bit more digging, but through a link I found on Google, I was able to find a fair bit of information on Dr. Buck. Trying to figure out what his name actually was was the bigger challenge, as his handwriting is somewhat loose. I’m still trying to find out more about him- where he served, what battles he worked at, etc. The amazing thing is that so many Civil War records are available online.
This was another fun one. Completely anonymous tintype. I was trying to put a date to the image, with little luck. The car is a generic “car type” and not representing any actual vehicle. Then I took a look at the backdrop. Gosh, that looked familiar. Again, Google Images is your friend in a quest like this. The scene? Cliff House in San Francisco, with Seal Rock in the surf. Cliff House in the form shown in the photo burned down in 1907 (yes, it survived the 1906 earthquake only to perish a year later in a fire). Given that most cars prior to 1905 or so didn’t have that form factor of a semi-closed four door body, that would put it between 1905-1907, and of course locate the photo as having been taken at or near Cliff House.
I got into collecting photography a few years ago, specifically vintage cased images. Really good cased images have started appreciating in value and are no longer the bargains that they used to be, but you can still pick up nice anonymous Daguerreotypes and tintypes for not too much money. An important thing to know is how to tell the difference – many people don’t know and will confuse the two, and try to sell (and price) the less valuable tintype as a Daguerreotype. The easiest way to tell the difference is in the appearance. A Daguerreotype will have a mirror finish and be hard to view directly without a black or other non-reflective color surface in front of it. Tintypes will weigh less and be clearly viewable from any angle. There are lots of other tips that can clue you in if you’re not sure, but that’s the obvious, easy distinction.
Three recent gum bichromate prints. Gum bichromate is perhaps the most labor-intensive photographic process because it involves building an image, one layer of pigment at a time. Most gum images need at least two layers, but often three or four are a minimum. Even working rapidly, you can only do about two layers a day. Gum is one of those processes that is all about the choices you make adding up to a finished product. All three images are whole-plate size images, 6.5 by 8.5 inches. Whole plate is the original photographic format, having been designed by Louis Daguerre for his first camera. Whole plate has a long and varied history, having come in and out of fashion repeatedly. It is enjoying a small modern-day renaissance not only for its historical echoes but for its aesthetically pleasing proportions and relative size.
This first image is a gum over Ziatype. Ziatype is a printing-out version of Palladium. A printing out process is one where the image is fully formed during exposure, and does not need a chemical developer to produce a final image. Ziatypes are really neat because they offer a very wide range of contrast, color and tonality depending on how you mix the chemistry. I do the Ziatype under the gum to start with a sharp base image with well-defined shadows and midtones. The gum builds on top to add physical texture and create color.
The second image is a pure gum image, with only two layers, black and blue. As you can see, it is possible to create a successful gum image with only two layers of pigment. I manipulated the layers to bring out the blue color and the detail in the hair.
The final image is a four layer gum bichromate. It is a pretty accurate representation of the model’s actual skin color, but it is made from a single black-and-white negative. I worked it over with a watercolor brush during the printing process to bring out the highlights on the model’s back.