Don’t Press Print – a Symposium on Wet Plate Collodion by CFPR & Royal Photographic Society

Photographs made with early photographic techniques such as wet plate collodion have an enduring appeal, not least for their silvery tones, sincere faces and sense of place, all framed with an irregular black border that betrays the way they were made. Wuon-Gean Ho, Research Associate at the Centre for Fine Print Research, writes about a recent symposium focusing on these beautiful techniques.

In September 2020 a two-day symposium titled De/Re-constructing the Art and Science of Photography: Frederick Scott Archer’s wet-collodion process ran in the virtual world, hosted jointly by the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) and The Centre for Fine Print Research (CFPR) University of the West of England. The conference looked at early photographic techniques from both historical and contemporary points of view and included scholarship on these mysterious and alluring images such as tintypes, collodion prints and ambrotypes amongst others.

Frank Menger, Senior Research Fellow at the CFPR, and one of the convenors of the symposium, explains the handmade process as follows:

‘A wetplate collodion positive (ambrotype) is entirely made by hand, from the pouring of the collodion to the exposure and the developing, and is performed by the collodionist within 20 minutes of a photography session. This intense, concentrated method of working requires a collaborative effort with the model, and can combine the inherent handmade qualities of the collodion process (serendipitous creation of artefacts and accidental inclusion of environmental materials such as dust), to create an extremely detailed, unique photographic plate that possesses an aura or ‘look’ that cannot easily be defined or reproduced.’

Frank Menger and his RPS counterpart, Dr. Michael Pritchard, conveners and hosts of the symposium, aimed to cover broad themes of reconstruction and deconstruction over the two days. The first day was largely focused on reconstructing the past, with talks about the historical aspects of these techniques, their development and use, while the second day was dedicated to how contemporary artists are using the technique. The talks embraced broad themes, including scholarship into collections of images; the historical wet plate collodion vs dry plate collodion movement; presentations from artist practitioners; examination of how new digi-types are using current and antique technology; and bringing techniques into modern society.

Dr Pritchard explains, ‘I was impressed by all the paper proposals, and, in the end, it was hard to leave any out. That resulted in a larger, richer and wider-ranging series of presentations, including some from students. For me, the breadth of papers made the conference particularly strong.’

A highlight for me was the keynote speech by Mark Osterman, an eminent practitioner who, along with his wife, France Scully Osterman, has been instrumental in popularizing the technique worldwide, not least because of their co-authored manual on wet plate collodion which has inspired and educated many. He talked engagingly about the long exposures that allow for the compression of time into one image, as well as demonstrating an incredible technical ability and much visual trickery. France also gave an excellent keynote speech on her personal correspondence with one of her most famous students, Sally Mann, who would write notes apologizing to France and Mark for her slapdash approach to collodion on the back of her exquisite test photographs.

Menger’s first wet plate collodion photographs were made six years ago, and he continues to be fascinated by the medium. He states, ‘The fact that collodion reacts very differently to light than any other silver gelatine processes (collodion is predominantly sensitive in the blue and ultraviolet spectrum), also influences the rendition of eye colour and skin tone, which contributes to the unique collodion look that adds to an uncanny viewing experience of a plate.’

One of the benefits of the virtual conference format was the bringing together of delegates from historians to practitioners to PhD students to enthusiasts from 17 different countries spanning the globe. The zoom sharing platform chat box was filled with reactions from predawn west coast USA to cocktail hour Australia. There was a constant stream of comments and chat throughout the talks which was a clear advantage of the online experience, and the intermittent panel discussions allowed for more open discussion. The real time commentary was open to the entire audience, which democratized the conversation. There was a friendly, generous spirit of enthusiasm which was nurtured by the programme and the platform.

Dr Pritchard concludes, ‘Moving a conference that had been originally planned as a live event with supporting practical workshops to an online event came with challenges, but in many ways the online conference reached more people, more internationally, than a live event would have done.’

The symposium proceedings will be published in due course: please visit the RPS website for more details

The next photographic conference run by RPS and CFPR will be on Photomechanical processes in 2021. Watch this space!

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