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Will Dunniway’s ‘Dirty Hand’ collodion tour of Yosemite Valley

Writer / Will Dunniway
Photography / Will Dunniway, Frances Dunniway, Mike Okey

A picture diary of a Web Plate Collodion workshop in May 2009.

Greetings. Well it was years in the planning and almost a year in preparation once we decided that there was an interest in my return to teach the 19th century process called ‘wet plate collodion’ in the beautiful Yosemite Valley.

Now that the ‘Tour’ has been completed, I have to say that it was a grand time in this majestic place with my friends. All of us who attended have decided to call it the first Will Dunniway (and friends) ‘Dirty Hands’ Collodion Tour of Yosemite Valley, since the silver nitrate stains marked all of our hands (and some clothing). I reminded them that these stains were “not dirt, but rather art” a reference to a comment about Julia Margaret Cameron!

We began to arrive on Thursday, May 7th and found our way to our Lodge in the Wawona area of Yosemite National Park. Here we had rented a 16 person lodge. It was perfect. Once settled in, we migrated down to the 19th century Wawona Hotel in Southern Yosemite for dinner.

Will Dunniway Colldoion Will Dunniway collodion
Here is our group at the Wawona Hotel lobby, minus Cindi’s husband, Bob Garacochea. He came the following day. From left; Mike Okey, Ted Roberts, Ron Perisho, Cindy Garacochea, James Burgess, Will Dunniway, Dave (Doc) Smith, Frances Dunniway, Lisa Dodge Rowley, Bethany Steele Union, James Steele and Nick Hidek. Photo by Mike Okey’s camera. Painting by Thomas Hill of Wawona Hotel. Built in 1879.
Will Dunniway collodion Will Dunniway collodion
Cindy Garacochea cleans her plates with a smile!

After retiring back to the Lodge, I instructed them in the craft of cutting, edging and cleaning glass. Each student then had to cut and clean the plates they were to use the following day.

The Yosemite Valley from the Tunnel at Inspiration Point. Dave (Doc) Smith, Nick Hidek, Lisa Dodge Rowley, Ted Roberts, James Burgess, Frances Dunniway (behind James), James Steele, Mike Okey, Bethany Steele Union and Ron Perisho.
On the first day of shooting we headed north to the Yosemite Valley. The weather was perfect. 70° and clear. Prayers answered, no valley blue haze to speak of. Once we neared the Yosemite Valley I had all of us stop at the Tunnel View for a panoramic look from Inspiration Point.

Yosemite Valley is held by some as the most beautiful place on earth. I am one of those.

Our first view was the Yosemite Falls. We positioned ourselves across the Valley on a road turnout and shot through the trees as shown below. The cameras we used were;

  1. 1860 Samuel Peck tailboard, whole plate camera mounted with a Dallmeyer 10 x 8 rapid rectilinear lens.
  2. 1860 French field folding tailboard whole plate camera mounted with a Dallmeyer 8.5 x 6.5 (whole plate) rapid rectilinear lens.
  3. 1870 EA Anthony tailboard 8×10 camera shooting in a whole plate size using both a Ross 6 1//2 x 6 1/2; Rapid Symmetrical and a Darlot petzval lens.
  4. 1880’s American Optical stereo camera mounted with two matching Darlot pill box designed single achromat lenses.
Will Dunniway Wet plate collodion
Above: Here is the first glass collodion wet plate negative of the tour by Will Dunniway.

Right: At the old Superintendent’s house location, childhood friends and now collodion pards. From left, Dave (Doc) Smith and Nick Hidek. Ron Perisho in background.

Will Dunniway wet plate collodion
In our second location on shooting Day One, we set up next to the old Superintendent’s house along the Merced River. At this point we were joined by our unofficial host, Ranger Dean Shenk. As we arrived our lunch was catered to us by the best Italian Deli of Southern California, the Bay Cities Italian Deli in Santa Monica (Venice Beach). It just so happens that Bob and Cindi Garacochea own and operate this deli. They catered both lunches and brought many goodies for the dinners we communally cooked on Friday and Saturday nights, along with many bottles of wine! They went way overboard but we all agreed it all tasted wonderful! Check them out if you are ever down that way (1517 Lincoln Blvd / Santa Monica, CA 90401 or their web is; www.bcdeli.com).

We set up again with our two tailgate portable darkrooms. In this second location we photographed Half Dome as seen in the group image below. Also shown below is our Ranger, Dean Shenk and my assistant, Ted Roberts chumming it up on location after lunch.

After this shoot, we returned to our lodge for another evening of eating, drinking, cutting and cleaning our glass in preparation of our next days shoot.
Day one was a good lesson day as the students learned that the glass needed to be cleaner than they had cleaned it the night before. They each had many issues of pouring and exposure in making the images. They were taught not to use the waiter style in holding the glass plate while pouring on the collodion – This left very definable overexposed silver finger tip marks in the image area. Cantilever was the only way to hold a glass negative in this cold mountain valley air. All in all, they did very well. The collodion formula we used was a double bromide, potassium iodide mix that was bright and fast. The developer was iron based.

Will Dunniway wet plate collodion Will Dunniway wet plate collodion
Ranger Dean Shenk and Ted Roberts. Students, Bethany Steele Union and her father James Steele, pose with an old friend, me. Will Dunniway.
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Here is our group at the second location. Again, we are missing Cindi’s husband, Bob Garacochea. From left; Mike Okey, Dave (Doc) Smith with stereo camera, Ron Perisho, Frances Dunniway, Will Dunniway, Nick Hidek, Bethany Steele Union, James Steele, Lisa Dodge Rowley, James Burgess, Cindy Garacochea and Ted Roberts. Photo by Dean Shenk. Shown here is a ambrotype plate made by Ron Perisho in stereo of himself in front of Half Dome. NOTE his dirty silver stained hands. Photo by Mike Okey.
Will Dunniway wet plate collodion Will Dunniway wet plate collodion
Frances Dunniway our head cook for Friday nights spaghetti dinner and general hostess for our stay at Yosemite. Here we are in the second day and final location, Cathedral Rock in front of Woskey Pond. Above you will see our roadside show that we did the ‘Dirty Hand’ Tour of Yosemite Valley with.
On the final day we arrived early to claim a spot in front of the Woskey Pond at the base of one of the most beautiful rocks in Yosemite Valley. Cathedral Rock. The day was as near perfect as a day can be. Again we were blessed with weather at 70 ° and clear. This time the students’ plate issues were minimum and they got a better grip on handling their plates from the pouring and exposure through the final development and rinse.

Here we all worked until 1 pm, breaking for another catered lunch by Bay Cities Italian Deli. We were greeted by another Ranger friend, Rebecca Lund and her boyfriend, John Phillips who works in the Yosemite Medical Clinic. Rebecca baked and brought us cookies! What a treat.

With our hands stained and our bellies full, we returned to our lodge in the Wawona woods south of the Yosemite Valley.

Here we varnished all the plates we had made the previous two days while the sun still shined.

This was a grand tour; a tour that was done in the spirit of those that had walked these same paths more than a century before – Charles Weed, Carleton Watkins, Edwaerd Muybridge. It was these men and many more, who introduced this magical valley to the rest of the world through their wet plate collodion glass negatives – Images that helped preserve this park as we all know it today. To these men I dedicated this Yosemite Collodion ‘Dirty Hand’ Tour of May 2009. (Yes, their hands were silver stained and dirty as well). This is what we do! Then and NOW, a full circle!

Thanks for sharing in another one of my journeys. Cheers!

Will Dunniway wet plate collodion Will Dunniway wet plate collodion
Mike Okey assists, Candi Garacochea. She is using an 1860 French field camera box as she makes a wet plate collodion glass negative of the Cathedral Rock in front of Woskey Pond. Her husband Bob looks on. Did I mention that Bob and Cindi were married on Easter this year? Presenting Mr. & Mrs. Garacochea. Newly weds! Lisa Dodge Rowley being assisted in a plate coating pour off by James Burgess.
Will Dunniway wet plate collodion Will Dunniway wet plate collodion
Color view. Cathedral Rock in front of Woskey Pond. Yosemite Valley, May 9, 2009. Photo by Frances Dunniway. Cathedral Rock in front of Woskey Pond by Lisa Dodge Rowley. Wet plate Collodion glass negative contact ® 2009.
Will Dunniway wet plate collodion Will Dunniway wet plate collodion
Lunch served in the Garden of Yosemite Eden below Cathedral Rock, in front of Woskey Pond. Bay Cities Italian Deli again caters us! In the foreground is Yosemite Park Ranger, Rebecca Lund (out of uniform) and boyfriend John Philipps, also NPS park service. On her day off she had made and brought us cookies (at her left). This tour keeps getting better. The final moments of any workshop is the varnishing and drying of the plates. We used God’s divine light and the warmth of the sun with the added heat of a pair of flameless catalytic Coleman® brand heaters in the foreground. The varnish was a Talas supplied sandarac resin made with 190 proof grain alcohol and pure oil of lavender. I am one of the last to do this, but I still add a drop or two (3 ml) of chloroform to 220 ml of varnish. The plates were ALL glossy and beautiful!
Will Dunniway wet plate collodion
From left. Mike Okey and Ron Perisho hover over the the added heat of the flameless catalytic Coleman® brand heaters while finishing the varnishing of their plates. All in a days work. Glass negatives ready to print.

Bob Garacochea prepares a toast for the host. What can I say. Great ending of a fabulous day and tour!

Will Dunniway wet plate collodion


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Instructions on how to make the plates.
Strongly recommended.

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