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Ancient Light

A couple of Saturdays ago, we assembled; a bunch of happy photographic 'retronauts' ready for Chris Gries, our heroic leader, to lead us on a journey into the past.

Chris Gries

The mission: to explore the wonderful world of Victorian wet collodion printing. And there are few people as experienced as Chris when it comes to working with this extraordinary and quite beguiling medium - first seen 175 years ago.

William - looking every bit the Victorian explorer

The wet-collodion process is sensitive only to blue and ultraviolet light. Warm colours appear dark, cool colours uniformly light. Portraits shot on this medium are strikingly sharp and, because of the medium's unique response to light, appear 'other-worldly' - or maybe I should say 'straight out of the past'. Which is exactly where Chris was determined to take us.

With a temporary darkroom rigged up behind a closed door at our offices, we were set to go. And this is where any sense of a leisurely adventure into the past was unceremoniously ditched as Chris cracked the whip to get us rapidly coating our plates with the sensitive photographic 'collodion' - a rich, sticky mix of silver nitrate - which had to be spread as evenly as possible on the plate, drained off, and put in the camera and exposed before the emulsion dried and lost a great deal of its sensitivity.

The technique might feel ancient but the best results are only got, maybe not at the speed of light, but certainly as fast as the would-be photographer can move from dark room preparation to the camera - and back again! I don't think I have ever seen a bunch of photographers so focused (no pun intended) and determined to get the best images they could.

Even when the collodion is wet the effective sensitivity is only about 1 iso. So, unless you are shooting portraits in brilliant direct sunlight, the only real way to work effectively is with the blitz of a modern flash set up.

There were moments when the whole frantic scene felt a bit like Frankenstein's laboratory; with several figures rushing about with rubber-gloved hands, torches on their heads and the blitz of the flash.

Chris shares a moment with 'retronaut' Richard

The passion Chris has for this medium is wonderful and he is in good company. Film actor, Gary Oldman is a great devotee and practitioner of Wet Collodion. And a brief survey of the internet will reveal that this process has built a world-wide following in recent years.

You can watch Oldman at work here -

Even environmentalist Greta Thunberg has been in on the act. When Greta visited Standing Rock – a place where the historic 2016 uprising took place as indigenous groups were fighting the Dakota Access oil pipeline, she found herself the subject of a wet collodion photographer - Shane Bolkowitsch.

Greta was there to be honoured by tribal leaders for her initiative to fight climate change. During the closing ceremony, the 16-year-old activist was given a Lakota Native American name “Maphiyata echiyatan his win” which translates as “woman who came from the heavens.”

'Wet Collodion is dead... Long Live Wet Collodion!'

...Not bad for a medium that appeared defunct with the advent of higher speed dry photographic plates and then the roll films that appeared at the end of the nineteenth century - and remain with us to this day.

I think the lasting power of the wet collodion process must be in the 'monumental' look of portraits shot on the medium. And, looking at that portrait-making of Thunberg in the midst of the Native American world reminded me of my own first encounter with the wet collodion process - when I first saw the images of Native Americans recorded by those pioneering photographers that went out West in the 1800s. The intensity of these images burn their way into your brain...

Sitting Bull circa 1885

And the collodion process has recently proved revelatory in the hands of Michael Bradley - a photojournalist from New Zealand.

Bradley discovered that the Collodion process renders traditional tattoos invisible...

Having flash 'blitzed' our way to a series of portraits under the inspired leadership of Chris, some of us decided to go for full length portraits.

There is a standing joke at the office that when Josh grows his mighty 'winter beard' he looks every bit the part of an old-school arctic explorer; with a face that wouldn't look out of place in a picture of Ernest Shackleton's men.

But as William loaded his collodion wet plate into the mighty 10x8 camera and turned it on Josh, he found the man in another role - clutching our rare and fascinating Lewis gun camera (yes it really is a camera and not a machine gun!) Josh suddenly took on the heroic look of... Er, Well I guess; a kind of World War One type.

Monumental indeed -

We should all pay tribute to Frederick Scott Archer, the inventor of wet collodion - announced in 1848.

Sadly Frederick did not patent his wonderful process. He died impoverished, leaving behind three children and a heartbroken wife - who died soon after him.

A public subscription raised a little money for the orphans but they were denied any profits from the wet collodion process.

Rest in peace, Mr Scott Archer...

Our happy band of photographic retronauts can't travel back in time to save you or your fortune but we salute you for a matchless photographic process that, with the expert guidance of Chris Gries, we found ourselves falling in love with one madly busy Saturday afternoon!

Long Live Film. And Long Live Wet Collodion!

All images are copyright of their respective photographers

Blog copyright Matthew Whiteman

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Nov 04, 2023

This was such a terrific and inspiring workshop to attend, Chris was so knowledgeable, passionate and helpful in sharing this wonderful technique and it was such fun and a pleasure to share the day with other likeminded folks in the wonderful setting of the beautiful LTI studio, a big thanks to William for the warm hospitality and lunch and am looking forward to future workshops. It was lovely to meet you Matthew for the first time and to have the privilege of taking a mini TinType of you and with Chris' guidance I was quite chuffed with how it turned out. A big thanks to for my friend Richard's TinType of myself, which I am now using as my icon…

Nov 16, 2023
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It was great to have you along Glenn!

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