Blue plate special: Wet collodion images on blue aluminum

Elizabeth Graves satisfies her curiosity about straying from black to explore wet collodion on deep blue plates.

Detail from a wet collodion plate of a Chinese-style dress by A.E. Graves

Wet collodion renders complex fabric textures in fine detail

The history of wet collodion references all sorts of interesting substrates: early practitioners used not only clear glass and blackened tin, but also black glass, red (ruby) glass, scrap metal, paper, wood and… whatever happened to be lying around.  (Leather?  Did I read that correctly?)

Like some of those early practitioners who employed novel materials to print on just to see what would happen, I don’t resist my own curiosity for long periods of time. There’s really no such thing as making art “incorrectly” – either it works (hooray!) or it doesn’t work to one’s own satisfaction (oops!);  if it doesn’t work as intended, even a failed experiment will likely provide new information to use in the future.

I’m using history as an excuse to explain that an on-line catalog showing painted trophy aluminum in wild colors was too much for me to resist.  Finally, after creating over 100 wet collodion plates on black-painted aluminum, I was lured into another direction. I suddenly needed to know how wet collodion would look on plates of other colors.  For knowledge – for science. (I love science.) In place of my usual order of black plates, I opted for two other colors. One of those colors is peacock-blue.

Cabinet-view sized image of a Chinese-style dress (source of the detail above)

“Shanghai Shop,” a cabinet-view sized wet collodion image of a Chinese-style dress on blue-painted aluminum

Why blue?

I began my journey into alternative photographic processes through cyanotypes, which reminded me of the wonderful blue-line prints I had used in architecture in one of my many past careers, and so blue was the color most likely to tempt me. Blue is a common color in art, especially in historic pottery and fabric dyes, and so was well-suited for the texture-based topics I want to explore.  I suspect that other people will be reasonably comfortable with the idea of blue images (more than the other colors I’ll show experiments with later, which have no specific historical justifications, and don’t harken back to anything comfortably familiar).

While many contemporary practitioners use collodion almost exclusively for portraiture, for which blue backgrounds may not be appropriate, I elected to show off large format collodion’s glorious resolution by making close-ups of richly textured fabrics.  This is a subject I haven’t explored extensively in the past, and frankly hadn’t given much thought to before being mesmerized by the resolution of the fine detail in other plates I’d made.  I dug deeply into my closet, set up my homemade camera (version 1) to make “life-sized” plates of the fabrics, pinned selected items of clothing to a cork board, and mixed up a batch of my favorite developer.  Over two sessions, I exhausted every plate of the “test” sheet of blue-painted aluminum I had purchased.

The results

I’m so glad I tried this!

Blue makes lovely wet collodion plates.  While I wouldn’t use blue for human subjects, who might appear unhealthy or gloomy, the color is pleasing, and would work well for the same topics I enjoy printing in cyanotype (architecture, anything made by people, scientific subjects, seascapes, etc.).  The peacock-blue plates are dark enough for the images read clearly.  I did not need to make any special adjustments in my technique to work on blue plates – my usual collodion and favorite developer were effective.

My choice of subjects worked well, because the clothing could be any color and “read” plausibly well on blue plates.  The tiniest details in the fabric come through gorgeously, and my tactic of lighting them at a moderately steep angle from above, with the lights just above my camera, allows the plates during to capture the details and texture more effectively  than I had originally hoped.

Challenges

The only challenges I experienced were educational, and not particular to the color of the plates.  I learned that heavy white embroidery on smooth white fabric (both matte in texture) did not create a strong image, because there wasn’t enough shadow detail to create adequate contrast.  Several plates failed as I tried to adjust the exposure times to generate a bolder image, to no avail.  I’d need to revisit the lighting set up significantly to get the results I wanted there, likely employing a harsh, raking light.

Also, as is common with collodion, certain fabrics containing the color yellow were difficult to capture, as the collodion sees yellow as much darker than other colors.  A black and pale-green garment failed to read well, and I ran out of plates before determining the appropriate increase in exposure time to get the contrast I wanted, assuming it is even possible in collodion.

Am I blue?

I’m very pleased with this experiment, and plan to order another sheet of blue aluminum to capture other fabrics and different subjects that have been calling to me.  I’ll also add several of these plates to my gallery here at alternativephotography.com.

I’ll keep the other color(s) of plate I’m experimenting with under wraps until my next homemade cameras are up and running, so I can finish test-driving those with my new hardware.


One Comment

  1. Posted February 11, 2013 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

    Wow- Elizabeth. I’ve never seen that before. I love it. I’ve always liked cyanotype, too, but it’s always a little too blue for me– but I love the relative softness of these– beautiful tones. Really interesting. Thanks for sharing this!

    Diana

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