The Best Kind of Learning Experience!

Don, March 25, 2016 - Alumitype
Don, March 25, 2016 – Alumitype

Friday was a great day! I had the opportunity to work with two friends, Don Jones and Dan Russell, with an historic photographic process! We created wet plate collodion positives, or today, called Alumitypes. Some of you may recognize these as being very similar to Tintypes (or Ferrotypes). You may even have a Tintype or two of your ancestors buried in old boxes of photographs.

Frederick Scott Archer (1813-1857) is the inventor we credit with describing the wet plate collodion process. This process consists of coating a plate with a mixture of guncotton, ether (the smelly stuff) and ethyl alcohol. Fair warning…you need some major ventilation here! I discovered that I must add an additional exhaust fan, or two, to my darkroom! We then sensitized the plates in a silver nitrate bath.

You can use this process on sheets of glass, thus creating a negative, or on sheets of black coated metal, which is what we did, creating Alumitypes. (The sheets of metal are black anodized aluminum.) And, like I always tell my History of Photography students, what makes this process so unique, is that it must remain wet throughout the whole process – the coating, sensitizing, shooting, and back into the processing. So, I ask my students what is another requirement when using this process? They learn that a mobile darkroom in the field, or one very close by, is necessary. On Friday, we had my basement darkroom, so we made images in my living room, and outside in the front yard.

Once the image is made, via some major calculations because the ISO is three, or I think we decided by late in the day, ISO ½, we took the plate holder back into the darkroom. Now, this is where things get hairy, because as part of our development and fixing process we use KCN, otherwise known as potassium cyanide! Don’t worry, it is well diluted and we “double gloved” like surgeons!

We set out with six plates, and finished the day with five usable images! The first two portraits made indoors with strobe lighting taught us a lot about the quantity of light, and contrast. And, the final three portraits made outdoors, in the beautiful soft lighting of a cloudy day, also taught us about how this process adds contrast. We watched our exposure times progressively get longer. Dan’s first portrait of me was ½ second, my portrait of Don was 4 seconds, and Don’s final portrait of Dan was 9 seconds! What fun!

I want to give a big thank you to Dan for letting us use his beautiful 8×10 Deardorff camera. A camera any photographer would be envious of! It is a work of art on its own. And, that Kodak portrait lens! I have sat and marveled at how sharp Don’s nose is in my shot! Just amazing!

I thank my friend Don, for sharing his newfound knowledge of this beautiful process and his excitement to include us in his discovery and learning process!

I hope you all enjoy my portrait of Don. Even though it is an image of a modern man, sitting in my driveway on Friday, March 25th, 2016, the image looks like it could have been taken in the remote, far northwest regions of our country on March 25th, 1856! That would have been a Tuesday. Imagine 160 years!

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