Change can happen seasonally or across the span of many years. For me, the change in my photography began when I moved to New England in 2011. My photography continued to shift as pieces of my former life (living in a city as a single mom raising an only child) began to fade as my rural settings (and family and love and co-parenting multiple children) took precedence. I didn’t have the foresight to see that I would process this life-altering event from within the lines of my art. But I quickly discovered that this shift occurred within my interest level of photography. It changed how I wanted to see myself (or not), how often I was shooting (or how infrequent), and mostly how it felt to be slinging a digital camera.
For a few months, my digital camera sat on the sidelines. I say it’s because it (the camera) felt out of place, but maybe I felt out of place. This sense of change was definitely a catalyst for me digging into new photographic mediums. All I knew was I craved slowing down. So I began tracing back through time, getting my hands on different film cameras and trying different techniques that it seemed to feed my creative muse.
It’s a weird feeling: to crave something when you don’t know what it is. It’s a bit like fumbling around in the dark muttering to yourself how your career (passion, art, love) for something must just be over. It leaves you with a sense of loss. A sense of missing. It’s a hunger that knocks in the middle of the night and (for me) was quenched quite surprisingly by the arrival of an antique, civil war era, large format camera.
Since that arrival, my partner Steve and I have been in and out of the darkroom (days, months, years) learning to make images from silver and light. Embracing the collodion process with our antique camera connects us not just with each other, but with all photographers throughout the timeline of history. In our home darkroom, we experience setbacks and also have tremendous breakthroughs. We make mistakes and make new discoveries. We are gentle with ourselves and supportive of each other as we make strides towards this thing we knew we would love. It’s not so much the end result (which can be an ethereal beautiful dream of an image) but it’s the process that keeps us coming back for more.
Making wet plates; ferrotypes (also known as tintypes) and ambrotypes (images on glass), is the very foundation of photographic roots. It’s what ruled the photographic world in 1851. Now, 163 years later, we are going back to the very basics of this process: this means we mix our own chemistry and use raw materials throughout all the steps. Collodion and ether. Silver nitrate. Sodium thiosulfate. Gum sandarac and lavender oil varnish. We make everything ourselves, and it is satisfying work. Steve and I have reached the platform to really dive into this wet plate process and it’s been nourishing something inside of us. It’s been revealing the strength in our partnership as well, as we work together in collaborations and in the darkroom where mutual respect and trust is needed.
Making ferrotypes resembles a ceremonial act. The set up, composition, and detailed focus are all part of the magic. The entire process occurs within five to fifteen minutes, ensuring the plate remains wet (hence the name: wet plate). The element of chance is a key player in this photographic method, rendering it very difficult to control. Making art and images from silver and collodion provides a physical interaction with the photograph that feels quite opposite of digital photography.
Together, we navigate this new experience. We encourage the creative flow while simultaneously seeking balance. Through failed attempts and measured successes, we inspire each other to continue on this path. One foot in front of the other, we are learning and, at the same time, teaching. We are drawn to the many layers of this process: mixing the chemistry, recognition of light and humidity, knowledge of exposure and shutter speed, development and proper darkroom practices. Each one of these layers is a learning curve with plenty of room for error. Shifting my mindset from digital to analog leaves me contemplating happy accidents such as sloppy pours, silver flares, fingerprints and the swirl of developer. I believe the mystery (and acceptance) of imperfections in this process truly adds to the beauty of the finished plates.
This is my new photographic process. It smells different. It feels different. It moves at a slower, more mindful pace. It satisfies something within me that wanted a certain uniqueness that comes from making a handcrafted image. My photography has been changing over these years. And through it all, I’ve learned that when we are open to change, we are open to possibilities. We simply need to remember to trust the process.