A conversation from 2012 between Rosie Welsh & Sean McKenna moderated by Martin Reed
Rosie Welsh graduated from St Martins School of Art in 2012, her final project being her own research & work with wet collodion.
Sean McKenna was a pioneer of the resurgence in wet-collodion work in the UK, and initially became involved through working as photographer in American Civil War re-enactments. Sean died in 2012.
R I think there’s a definite resurgence – in my Uni in terms of art generally there feels like there’s this going back to craftsmanship and traditional process and I think in terms of photography in the last couple of years since I’ve been getting really enthusiastic about it everything’s been doubling in price on Ebay and people are a lot more aware what wet-plate is. There’s quite a few people in my Uni who’ve done quite a lot of old process.
M Where do you think the resurgence came from, did it wash over from the US?
R It’s more Paris & other countries in Europe that are bigger in wet-plate, but there’s more interest coming up in London now, I think it’s this idea of art being so minimal that people are trying to do something different.
M What led you both to collodion? Sean, in your case you were following American Civil War re-enactment. Was that your principal interest?
S the Civil War re-enactment was what I used to do – I was seriously ill with peritonitis in1999, and I wasn’t really well enough after that to do the Civil War stuff. Then I thought, well I still want to do the re-enacting because I enjoy it – I’ll do photography. And at first I was going to see if I could do some sort of dry-plate ferrotype – there are dry plate ferrotype processes. But I very fortunately found Bob Zaber’s forum, and the details were on that. Through his forum I found Carey Lea and The Silver Sunbeam, the original manuals. And I thought I’ll give it a go, I’ll make it really as it was. The thing that really gets me about the process is that I do everything – I start with the glass and the chemicals, and I finish up with my own albumen paper, and it’s as the process was in the 1850’s or ‘60’s. You do the process completely, you’re in complete control.
M Yes, you’ve completely unshackled yourself from the manufacturer. Bringing up the term ‘syntax’, photographing with wet plate imposes very strict controls on the way you work, do you see that as a strength, that it’s confining you into a certain way of operating?
S It concentrates the mind marvellously. I restrict myself to still lives these days but I’ll set it up and spend the morning working just to get one photograph that I want. I might do a positive like a tintype or an ambrotype, and do a negative as well so I can do prints, but I’ll confine myself to that one image, trying to get it as I see it.
M Rosie, how do you find working in this very constrained way?
R That’s the thing, it’s possible for it not to be so constrained necessarily, you can work things out so you can choose how and where you photograph. They used to take kits out in the field, so it can be made portable.
S …if you’re organised – when I used to do the historical re-enactments I took my darkroom tent with me. And of course the whole business, being the wet collodion process, you coat the plate, you sensitise it, you take the photograph, you go back into the darkroom tent, you process it, and fix it. That all has to be done within a relatively short period of time. There were dry collodion processes that people tried but they were much slower.
M What led you to collodion Rosie?
R I wasn’t wasn’t feeling satisfied by just pressing the button. For a few years I tried out all various old processes in the darkroom, I went on this little journey. I got the book Spirits of Salts and went through it, did all kinds of toning, silver emulsion coating, tried all sorts of things but felt it wasn’t giving me enough. I needed something more set apart, that would give unique images. So I started looking and found wet collodion in a book and got really enthusiastic about wanting to do it. I built a darkroom in my flat and continued from there, building equipment, buying cameras, kept testing, trying it and failing, nothing happening, no reaction whatsoever. Eventually I came across Sean, and that was when I managed to get an image.
M So it was the thing of actually creating an image in the camera, rather than making a print in an alternative process which was important?
R It’s the physical nature of it, that you’re actually making this yourself, that craftsmanship, being so involved with the process that you feel so much more satisfied than using modern film. I can print in the darkroom really well if I want to but it’s more laborious. There’s something quite miraculous about the wet-plate, and coming at it the way I have the more you get nothing, the more you really want it.
S One of the things about wet collodion, particularly when you’re doing it in the field is that you don’t come back with any dud exposures. Because you have to process at the point, if you make an exposure and it’s no good you just wipe off the plate and pour another one. So if you go out with half a dozen plates you know you’re coming back with half a dozen decent exposures. Whereas you might have come home with half a dozen undeveloped dry plates and then find none of them are any good.
And there is a certain pleasure, as the image comes up when you’re developing, and you can see it’s coming up well. Because it’s all so very quick. Normal modern photography it’s all temperature and development and you don’t see it developing, but with this you’re actually holding the plate and you’re actually watching as it comes up, you know within 20 or 30 seconds whether it’s any good or not, any it’s pnly going to take a minute or two to process, and then it’s into the fix and you’re there. Well, you’re either there or you’re not!
M So there is a parallel with digital in that sense, it doesn’t go off to a lab and disappear for a week or two.
R Yes, that’s one of the greatest qualities. And now we’re so over saturated with digital images, bringing wet-plate back is very exciting.
M Rosie, is this a technique you think maybe you’re just visiting, or are you going to stay with it for a long time.
R I think I’m going to stay with it, now that I’m set up, and have built lights.
M Getting working with it, has it been very difficult, in terms of sourcing equipment & materials?
R It has been a bit of a nightmare, because I’ve also been shooting in a studio rather than outside, so I haven’t got the natural light, which is the key ingredient. You can’t use tungsten light, I had to build my own lights…
S It’s like photographing in the dark, it looks perfectly light to you, but as far as the collodion process is concerned the lights aren’t there! You need fluorescent lights indoors, because there’s enough UV in fluorescent lighting, and if you get a big enough bank of tubes you get reasonably short exposures.
R It hurts your eyes a bit at first, you’ve got to adjust yourself to it. I built 2 big lighting troughs. On one there’s 2 long aquarium lights, and on the other there are 20 lightbulbs, the ‘SAD’ ones that have UV in them. So that was quite a feat.
And that’s the thing, everything with this process, every time I thought I was ready to go, and I had all the equipment built I’d find one more thing that I needed – and then they don’t sell it in this country or they’re discontinuing it. Like fr the lightbulbs I bought screw fit, and I now find out they’re discontinuing screw fit. It took me two and a half weeks to find the batten holders to put the lightbulbs in. So there’s quite a lot of crawling around. To get the glass in the first place I tried to adapt a normal darkslide, I found really thin glass that took me a week or so. All the time building up, every time you think you’re ready, you’re not.
M Health & safety – quite an issue. You’ve been doing this in a college environment?
R I’ve been doing it in my bedroom!
M But the traditional way, as demonstrated by Scully & Osterman uses cadmium salts in the sensitiser, potassium cyanide as fixer…at what point do you jump out and say I can’t do it this way. There’s a positive aspect to using cyanide isn’t there?
S So they say. Carey Lee, the first 50 pages is the beginners section, and he ends this with about 30 notes, and one of them is don’t use potassium cyanide! Now this is an American writing in 1867, don’t use potassium cyanide, quite unnecessary. And he’s right – ordinary hypo works ok, but if you’re doing positives, one of the advantages of cyanide was the colour of the finished positive, and the fact the cyanide would tend to bleach out the shadows a wee bit, so giving a better contrast. But if you use ammonium thiosulphate, this too, it works very fast, and I understand it can also bleach a little if you leave them in, although I’ve never found it necessary to. Ammonium thiosulphate is particularly useful if you’re working in the field, because using a strong solution a tintype will be completely fixed in half a minute, which means due to the nature of the collodion coating it will wash much more easily than modern film. Plates I’ve made in the field will only have been washed for 3 or 4 minutes in changes of water, and are very permanent.
M There’s an enormous historical record which seems very permanent, so this doesn’t seem have been an issue.
S Well most of the historical ones probably were made with cyanide which washes out quickly, but if you use ammonium thiosulphate, and a bit of care you’ll be fine. And there’s certainly no necessity to use cadmium compounds at all. There are quite satisfactory substitutes. I’ve imitated cadmium compounds by using zinc, which lives next door to cadmium in the periodic table and presumably has some of the same qualities, and indeed was used in the 19’th century, you see zinc bromides & iodides mentioned in some 19’th century formulas. But one collodion I use was made with sodium iodide and sodium bromide, they both dissolve well, they’re both relatively cheap to buy, and they’re safe. And of course you are dealing with something that is a mixture of alcohol and ether, if you were stupid there could be a fire risk, but then we use other similarly inflammable things – one doesn’t smoke when pouring a collodion plate!
M What of the effect of the fumes on the respiratory system?
S Not really an issue, the Victorians worried about that but the thing is you don’t need to be in the dark when you pour the plate. That’s when you get what fumes you do, I normally pour my plate in my darkroom, but with the door open. I’ve never found the fumes worrying me.
R The thing with ether is that some people respond to it more than others, in the old days when it was used as an anaesthetic some people actually died under it…but in plate coating recently I’ve found in research only one guy who had problems using it. It’s quite a slim chance if you’re careful with it, I always pour it outside.
M It does seem like there’s a reputation attached to wet-plate which has been given to it by people who haven’t much experience of it.
S That’s why when I set out to try to do traditional photography, I had heard these stories, and I thought I’ll do dry plate tintypes. But then I found Bob Zarbers site, and other people seemed to be getting on quite well. I’ve never had any trouble. The main problem with ether as an anaesthetic of course is it’s inflammable, and there were accidents and explosions. Whereas chloroform isn’t inflammable.
R But killed people as well.
S Anything that will put you to sleep will kill you if you’re put to sleep too much.
M Rosie, at the moment you’re producing final prints, ambrotypes?
R I’m producing positives on glass, ambrotypes, I’ve got them propped against black…they’re self portraits.
M Are you going to produce negatives and carry that through to prints on albumen paper?
R Yes, what happened is I’ve been doing this for six months, and I only got the collodion working 5 days before I had to install for the show, so I thought I’ll do positives, it was the quickest and easiest thing to achieve in that time. I’m quite interested in what Sean told me, that collodion has no grain, and the possibility of enlarging is actually infinite.
S Well, in theory if you had a perfectly poured plate and a perfect lens on the camera then you could enlarge infinitely, but of course you never do have a perfectly poured plate, but there is in theory no grain because the iodides and bromides are dissolved at molecular level. It’s not like a gelatin emulsion where you have enormous silver bromide & iodide crystals floating about in gelatin. Everything is dissolved. It’s finer grain, in a sense, than the finest grain film could ever be.
R But for me it’s not about enlarging, I’ve studied sculpture as well, and for me the plate is an object, and this idea is important that the image becomes an object. I feel like the work I’ve put up is just kind of images is a brief introduction to the process but I want people to understand as a piece of work this process and this journey that’s involved.
M What’s the reaction been to your working in this traditional field – has there been any prejudice from college staff, who feel you should be embracing the cutting edge of digital?
R No, not at all. Everyone’s really excited about it. I really do feel there’s this resurgence of interest in traditional, just the skill involved, everyone’s so intrigued by that.
M I think it’s probably come out the other side now, I’m talking about 5-10 years ago, and I think in education at that time digital was perceived as being the pinnacle.
R I found exclusivity, that’s what I found. Trying to get into this world of photography there’s a lot of exclusivity, and there’s a lot of people lying to you because they don’t want you to be doing it, and it’s a real shame that things aren’t just available to everyone, that it is that hidden. I’ve been doing it on my own and I think that’s managed to keep me going, and I haven’t really been talking to people too much about it, friends & peers & tutors too much, it becomes this fight over it. That’s what I feel.
M It always will be an elitist sort of area to work in, but it would be good if the hurdles that you have to jump could be simplified a bit – has that been the most difficult thing, actually finding all the sources for the chemicals, equipment, all the different things you have to bring together.
R Yes, because I went into Sean’s darkroom and tried to photograph it in my mind, and went out and tried to build little bits of equipment that he uses that are just so integral to the process.
M So it’s very important to have a teacher then, you would say, someone who has experience who you can work with?
S Well it certainly helps. I managed to start partly through luck, because if you have a success the first time you do it, then you know you can do it, and if it goes wrong for say the next 3 times, you know it works. So I was lucky the first time I did it. But I looked very hard to see if I could find somebody ten years ago, and I could find nobody who did it.
R The key thing is the formulas, getting hold of the correct ones, because I tried out so many off forums that were just rubbish. I don’t think they knew what they were talking about and they didn’t explain enough. Until you showed me the Carey Lees manual I looked in some old manuals, but it was very confusing. You really need a lot of direction in those things, the key ingredients.
M References that you go to for the most useful information on collodion?
S Carey Lee is brilliant. The first 45 pages tell you everything you need to know. All you have to do is translate the American grains and drams etc into grams and millilitres. It tells you how to make a silver bath, I always make my silver bath the way he describes. His simple negative developer is beautiful, and it works for positives as well, although I do use a special positive developer which makes the highlights more metallic and white. Warbecks no. 2 developer.
M Your next move Rosie, printing onto albumen paper?
R Yes I definitely want to try albumen printing, but at the moment I want to think about actually explaining what’s happening with the collodion rather than just having an image.
M What sort of community working with collodion exists in the UK so far?
R I’d say there’s about ten people to my knowledge, you’ve probably taught most of them Sean?
S I’ve taught some of them. I prefer it to be non commercial. The Ostermans run it differently, they’re on a kind of mission, and naturally they have to charge, they couldn’t do the sort of work they do unless they charged for it.
Equipment is a problem, because you do need…there are ways of converting a standard film holder to take a slightly smaller sized wet plate. It’s covered in Mark Ostermans notes, but you really need a proper wet-plate back which you can fit on the camera in place of the ordinary back.
R You really need access to a workshop…
S …Or get one made. There’s an engineer in the States, Ray Morgonveck who runs the Sire Camera Company. My early backs that I used were made by him.
R The problem for me was, being a student I don’t really know how much money I’ve spent, but the total must be a lot of money, and I did it as cheaply as I could, not skimping but just because I couldn’t afford to go out and buy everything the way I should.
M Do you see it as a long apprenticeship, putting this amount of effort and investment into it? Also will it enhance the value of the work as art?
R This is what I feel is quite sterile about the work I’ve shown so far, because it just shows the end of the process, it’s like an end to a journey but the journey hasn’t been described. What I need to incorporate now is that journey, so people understand what’s really involved in such an arduous process.
M You have to package that into it somehow. My experience of working with students is that frequently they’ve been assessed without the assessors really understanding the depth of experience and understanding that’s gone into creating the work.
S I think Rosie’s probably spent more than it should have cost – if I’d met Rosie at the beginning of this it would have been rather cheaper. Two grand is a very high price to start. By the time you’ve bought the chemicals and bits and pieces, a couple of hundred plus whatever camera you’re going to use is what it should be. Plus the cost of the lighting.
R The lighting was really expensive, even though I made it all myself and I got it as cheaply as possible. The lights are something like £7 each, and then the timber was very expensive. I’ve made stands so that the lights move up and down, and incline. I designed everything myself, which added to the time.
M There’s maybe a point where you’ve put so much effort into it that you can’t bale out, you’ve just got to keep on going
R I’m just very stubborn, and the failures early on made me want it even more.
M One of the motivating factors, your reaction possibly to digital?
R Oh definitely, I absolutely detest digital. I don’t even let people photograph me with digital cameras. I did my dissertation on the mass consumption of images, the over-saturation of it, and it’s taking away the iconic moment that real photography has, the power of it. Now everyone’s a photographer, everyone’s producing the same thing.
S Ironically, in 100 years time, there will probably be fewer photographs remaining, because for all the mass of digital photographs taken, how many are printed that will last?
M With traditional negatives, they can be held up to the light and seen as objects in themselves, and even if covered in dust a print can still be made. We’re heading into the dark ages, visually.
S Ironically, in the near east, everyone used to write on clay tablets, and about 8 or 9 hundred BC the Egyptians started exporting papyrus in great quantities into the near east, and people started using this marvellous new writing material, which was much better than clay tablets. But of course, the papyrus didn’t last archivally, so archaeologically the result was a disaster, and there are periods where no records exist because the papyrus just decayed. Whereas the clay tablets last for ever!
R Taking it back to photography is that we’ve progressed so rapidly in the last 200 years that different avenues of the materials weren’t researched to their full potential, and now digital is eclipsing the traditional there are gaps there that will never be filled.
M Ironic also that it was really only when sophisticated computer modelling arrived that emulsion technology could be taken to the extraordinarily high levels that it reached – but that also made digital imaging possible, which eclipsed the traditional. But maybe there’s the comforting thought, that as long as you can get hold of some basic chemicals including silver salts, some collodion, or gelatin maybe, it will always be possible to work the photographic process to make a real image. And that knowledge will never be lost.
Thank you both very much!