Elizabeth Graves interviews Michael Shindler of RayKo Photo Center after the opening of a new a wet plate collodion darkroom/studio for hire.
San Francisco has an extensive number of commercial studios and labs, as well as one of the largest public darkrooms in the United States. Recently, the city by the bay added another facility to its impressive collection: a wet plate collodion darkroom/studio that is available for rental to experienced wet plate enthusiasts.
Michael, how did you discover wet plate collodion?
Michael: A local wet-plate photographer named Mark Andrews came to RayKo and offered to run a class here at our facility.
I was really excited by the idea, because wet-plate was one of those old processes that I’d always thought would be fun to try, and here was this opportunity to have someone come and teach it to me as part of my job.
So, I immediately volunteered to assist him with the class and help get all the materials together.
What appealed to you about the process?
Michael: Initially, I think I was mainly attracted to the idea that we were going to make photographs by hand – from scratch. By now, everyone has had the experience of having their favorite printing paper discontinued or seeing this or that photographic supplier go out of business. There’s this pioneer attitude of “Fine, I’ll just go make my own” that seems like an appropriate response to what’s happening to photography. So, I liked the fact that we were assembling a collection of raw materials with which we could make pictures on old window glass or tin cans, and without electricity or running water if need be (although, why this is a comfort when we’re located in downtown San Francisco, I can’t explain).
There’s this pioneer attitude of "Fine, I’ll just go make my own" that seems like an appropriate response to what’s happening to photography.
And, of course, the plates themselves are gorgeous. It’s sort of ironic that after more than 150 years of photography, I’ve never seen anything that approaches the beauty of a well made Daguerreotype or Ambrotype. There’s also something significant about the fact that these plates are unique and irreproducible; each plate is labored over and when you sell it or give it away or drop it on the floor – it’s gone.
One thing that surprised me was how beautifully simple the process is. In terms of photochemistry, wet-plate collodion (even more than Daguerreotype) was really the mother of modern photography, and there’s no better place to look if you want to really understand the basic chemistry behind it all.
How did you learn the technical aspects of the process?
Michael: Mark’s class was really a great introduction for me, and it was the first time I ever saw Ferrotypes being made. I knew it was something I wanted to pursue, and thought it would be great to be able to promote and support the process here at RayKo.
One of the people who works here, Anna Case, has experience with wet-plate and had spent time working with John Coffer at his rustic farm in New York, where he lives and produces wet-plate photographs as if it were 1865. Anna had some tips for me, and she loaned me her copy of John Coffer’s excellent hand-written manual, “The Doer’s Guide to Wet-Plate Photography”. It contains a wealth of information and is an entertaining read as well. I recommend it to anyone interested in the process. I believe it’s available on his website, johncoffer.com.
Honestly though, the basics of wet-plate are not difficult to master and you can find plenty of information if you poke around on the internet or at the library. If you’re someone who enjoys darkroom work and mixing your own chemicals, you won’t find it overwhelming. It’s a lot like cooking, really. There are basic recipes to follow and lots of room for experimentation. And if you’re a little bit handy in the workshop, you can easily make your own chemical tanks and plateholders too.
Do you prefer making ambrotypes or ferrotypes?
Michael: I’ve been making a lot more Ferrotypes than Ambrotypes, but this is probably more out of laziness than any real preference. I have to admit, I’ve been cheating a little bit by using a black-lacquered aluminum plate that we get from a trophy supply company instead of coating my own plates with asphaltum. It’s so easy, you just peel off the protective sheet and they’re dust-free and ready to use.
You’ve been offering an opportunity for others to work with wet
collodion through Rayko Photo Center’s workshops, wet plate studio
rentals, and by selling wet plate supplies. What services does Rayko offer for wet plate practitioners? What services does Rayko offer for others who use wet darkroom processes or hybrid wet/digital processes? What is your goal in making wet plate collodion more accessible?
Michael: There’s a significant amount of time and expense that goes along with getting yourself set-up to make plates on your own. There’s an initial investment in chemicals, and some are expensive or are controlled to a certain degree. Then there’s the need for equipment like plate holders, dipping tanks, glass labware and an accurate scale. There are chemical disposal issues. If you don’t have a view camera, you’ll need something to take pictures with (although an old Brownie will do). And you have to have space in which to do this work, which is a major problem for artists in an expensive urban area like San Francisco.
It seemed like all this was going to be too much of a barrier for a lot of people, so we wanted to find a way to make it easier for people to get started and hopefully to build up a community of artists working with the process here at our facility. We started with an introductory Wet-Plate Collodion workshop (which is now part of our regular schedule of classes), and we’re now hosting regular Wet-Plate Studio days, where photographers can reserve a block of time and get access to a completely equipped wet-plate darkroom and our studio with a camera and lighting equipment. Everything is supplied, so you can walk in empty-handed and make your first plate in a few minutes.
For the Wet-Plate Studio days, we do require that people have taken the workshop or have prior experience with the process, but we will do individual training sessions if people don’t want to wait for the next class. We also sell pre-mixed collodion, developer, varnish and packets of glass or lacquered aluminum plates. Next spring we’ll also be offering an Albumen/Printing Out Paper class, which will be supported by a Digital Negative Making class that will take place a few weeks earlier.
So, a lot of this stuff has just come out of thinking about what the future of traditional photography might be and what sorts of things might be going on in the darkroom of the 21st century, and oddly enough, I think it’s going to start looking a lot more like it did in the 19th century.
There is still a strong desire among many people to be involved in the craft of making images by hand. And who wants spend hours in the dark laboring over something that looks like it could have come out of an ink-jet printer? The quality of digital printing is getting so good that I think a lot of people who are interested in darkroom work are starting to look for the things that digital doesn’t offer. And this sort of exploration makes you start to think about why it’s important to make things by hand, and what it was that interested you in photography in the first place.