It makes little sense, in this era of pocket-sized digital cameras, to return to a labor-intensive Civil War-era technology. Yet that's exactly what 16 students in Julee Holcombe's photography workshop did one day this fall, when Yige Wang, co-director of UNH's Confucius Institute, introduced them to wet plate collodion photography.
Perhaps best known by Matthew Brady's famous Lincoln portrait, wet plate photography involves pouring an alcohol solution across a thin metal or glass plate, dipping it into silver nitrate and exposing it while still wet. Because the entire process, including developing, must happen before the plate dries—about 10 minutes—wet plate photography requires a portable darkroom when it's done outdoors; for this class, Wang and Holcombe, an assistant professor of art, transformed the UNH darkroom.
Students arrived several hours early for the workshop, carrying props—a ukulele, mask, deer skull, cigarette—and every student posed for a portrait. Wang had brought several box cameras the size of toddlers from his personal collection. His largest one, a 6-foot-long, 120-pound behemoth that shoots 26-by-26-inch plates, has a coveted Dallmeyer 8D lens that would cost about $15,000, "if you could find one on eBay," Wang says. "They're very rare."
The challenging indoor lighting demanded that each exposure last at least 20 seconds. That's 20 seconds "without breathing, without blinking, without moving," Wang cautions, propping the students' heads with a modified crutch to help them keep still. More than six hours later, the students produced 16-by-20-inch portraits, their youthful faces murky with mystery and drama.
With such a laborious process and cumbersome equipment, it's easy to see why wet plate photography fell out of favor. Yet Wang says he and others are drawn to it as a counterpoint to the freewheeling excesses of digital photography, where technology allows photographers to shoot first and hit "delete" later.
"This puts the thinking process back in," says Wang, who has published several books of digital photos but has lately gravitated toward the collodion process as a hobby. "You really have to think each time, 'Why am I taking this?'"
Still, ironically, in order to share the wet plate images that are so painstakingly produced, Wang scans the giant sheets of tin, digitizes them, and uploads them to a website.Return to UNH Magazine Campus Currents