TravelTraveler Magazine

Behind the Lens: Making the Present Look Past

Photographer Robert J. Szabo specializes in wet plate collodion photography, a technique that was used during the Civil War, to photograph modern day battle sites and reenactors. National Geographic Traveler published his past-meets-present images in our latest issue (download the latest issue for your iPad here).

Read on as photo editor Krista Rossow asks Robert about his interest in wet plate photography, then check out the audio slideshow below to listen as he explains how he achieves his signature 19th-century look.

Krista Rossow: How to you get started in wet plate photography?

Robert J. Szabo: I got into wet plate photography because I was into Civil War reenacting. I had done that for seven years, and was getting tired of running around in a wool suit, but wanted to stay in a living history hobby. Around 1997 I met a man named John Coffer from upstate New York who had been doing wet plate photography about ten or fifteen years. He took a picture of the group I was with and when I saw that picture and how great it looked, I knew it was something I wanted to do. John had just started teaching at that time, so I took a one-day workshop with him, got rid of all my military gear, and have been taking wet plate pictures every since.

KR: How would someone go about learning the wet plate technique?

RJS: The chemicals in the wet plate process can be dangerous, but with proper usage that danger is reduced. That is why I highly recommend taking a workshop from somebody with experience instead of starting off on your own. Google is also a great place to start. You’ll find my website which includes a forum that I manage, but there are also other forums out there to learn about resources and other information.

KR:How do you store all of the glass plates that you’ve shot? I can imagine dealing with plates is much more cumbersome than slide boxes!

RJS: I’ve been doing this for 15 years so I have a lot of plates. My plates are filed, put into envelopes, and then placed into boxes. I’ve moved a couple times and, believe me, there’s something worse than hauling books around: hauling glass plates around. They aren’t light! I also scan most of my plates and archive them digitally.