The Magical Alchemy of Wet Plate Photography

I have a confession to make. I’m a digital native. While this might not seem like a big deal to some, among photographers it’s a distinction. Whether or not you’ve worked in a darkroom tends to shape how you see photography. Since I work on the Found Tumblr, which features archival photographs, I felt like I needed to know more about darkroom and alternative processes. One process in particular—wet plate—has become increasingly fascinating to me. So to learn more, I went to the Penumbra Foundation’s campus in New York City and took an introductory wet plate course taught by Lisa Elmaleh. (Coincidentally, we featured Elmaleh’s portraits of Appalachian folk musicians on Proof last year.)

You might have seen some wet plates recently—for instance, these stunning Esquire portraits of celebrities at Sundance. Wet plate, or collodion, photography was used heavily in the mid- to late 1800s. It replaced the daguerreotype as the popular photographic medium. One defining feature of wet plate is that you must develop the photograph almost immediately after exposing it. This means you have to have a darkroom, or at least a portable one, nearby.

For me, the appeal of wet plates lies in their ghostly yet detailed aesthetic. Each image is filled with many imperfections, unlike digital images, which are often either executed perfectly or fixed in post production. The imperfections of wet plates—the scratches, hazy patches, and blurriness—are what drew me in.

At the workshop, I was initially intimidated when Elmaleh started going through the list of chemicals we’d use. I’m admittedly a little bit clumsy and certainly not a chemist, so attempting a feat that would demand good hand coordination seemed like the perfect way to make a fool of myself. This is why I work on a computer, after all! But there’s no turning back when you’re at a hands-on workshop.

We first learned how to mix chemicals, as well as the many different steps we’d need to perform—some of which involved contorting your hand and timing things just right. We started out by taking portraits of each other, experimenting with lighting, and attempting to focus a massive, boxy, 4×5 camera. Many of the exposures were more than five seconds long, sometimes up to 12 seconds. Some of my fellow workshoppers, including my portrait partner, Leticia Scala, found it hard to sit still for that long. The craziest part? The exposure time is an estimate. The unpredictability of the collodion makes a light meter nearly useless.

It felt like there were a million ways to ruin my wet plate photographs, whether it was while preparing the plate in the darkroom, taking the photo, or developing the plate. One glass plate fell out of the 4×5 holder and was badly scratched. Rest in peace, plate #4. A few of my plates turned out splotchy because I didn’t develop them properly—I let the developer drain off too quickly or accidentally dumped it all on one section of the plate. Most of my plates were on tin while one was on black glass. Although glass is obviously more breakable, they all felt fragile.

The process was simultaneously nerve-racking and exciting—it was win all or lose all, every plate a gamble. But the rewards were so rich. It’s an incredible feeling to hold a photograph and not just see it on a screen. Whether they are tin or glass, the photographs have weight to them. The finished plates even smell of lavender because they are varnished in a mixture of diluted tree sap and lavender oil. It’s a tactile, nearly sensual experience.

Maybe one day I’ll build myself a portable darkroom and make wet plates in some southern forest. Or maybe I’ll just find an old plate in the archive and be able to tell you more about how it was made. Either way, I feel like I’ve unlocked a myriad of new avenues to explore. Now when I look at old plates, I am in awe of the photographer’s mastery and skill. I’m inspired by how the photographs endure and piqued by thoughts of all the plates that “got away.”

For more information about wet plates and the Penumbra Foundation, please visit their website or find them on Facebook.

Follow Janna Dotschkal on Twitter and Instagram.

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