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Wet Plate Photography

In this article, we will take a look at the technique involved in wet plate photography and its uses.
Photography in the nineteenth century was a matter for the stout-hearted and the stout-bodied. Not to mention the patient. It was a long drawn out process involving bulky, heavy equipment - a camera, a camera tripod, glass plates, glass plate holders, a dark-room/dark-room tent, an assorted chemicals, and, last but not the least, sufficiently detailed information about using them. This kind of photography, due to all that went into it, was known as 'Wet Plate Photography' or 'Collodion Photography'. It was first successfully implemented by the English photographer and sculptor Frederick Scott-Archer in the mid-Nineteenth Century, although, prior to him, people like the Frenchman Gustave Le Gray and the Englishman Robert Bingham had already been experimenting in it.

The first thing to be done in this type of photography was setting up the camera and tripod and the dark-room tent. Then you took a well-cleaned glass plate from your collection and, getting underneath the dark-room tent, set about readying it. This involved first preparing a transparent and sticky Collodion Solution - discovered in 1846 by the Frenchman Louis-Phillipe Manard (also separately by the American Dr. J P Maynard in 1848) and made by treating raw cotton with nitric and sulfuric acids (this treated cotton was known as Pyroxlin), dissolving it in ether and ethanol (alcohol) mixed with an iodiser (a mixture of iodide and bromide). Later somebody became innovative and began the time-saving trend of marketing this solution ready-made. This solution, incidentally, was used not just by photographers, but also as an adhesive liquid bandage by Surgeons. The Collodion Solution was poured over the glass plate and then the plate was tilted this way and that until it became entirely and evenly coated with Collodion. The excess, depending on how extravagant or thrifty you were feeling, went down the drain or back into the bottle for future use.

The glass plate, after a few minutes when the Collodion Solution had coagulated somewhat , was immersed into a container with a Silver Nitrate Solution. The iodide and bromide in the Collodion Solution underwent a chemical reaction with the Silver Nitrate to form a photo-sensitive Silver Halide coating over the glass. The back of the plate was carefully wiped clean of the Silver Nitrate Solution.

Now you quickly inserted the wet, dripping glass plate into a light-proof glass-plate holder that in turn was slid into the camera. Next thing to do was slide out the removable holder cover that covered the glass plate. Now you were all set to photograph. It was imperative you got your work done while the plate remained wet.

So now you rechecked your subject through the view-finder. If it was an inanimate subject, no problem, but the live ones had probably shifted around by now and you had to get them back in position. Then you removed the camera lens cap and allowed light to stream into the camera and strike the photo-sensitive, chemically treated glass plate inside. The session ended when you replaced the lens cap. The key to good photography was knowing the exact amount of time between removing and replacing. The subjects to be photographed - I again speak of the live ones here - had to have a certain amount of talent for remaining absolutely still for the twenty seconds to five minutes that were sometimes needed for proper exposure - not just remaining still, but maintaining the same expression throughout.

After exposure, the cover of the glass-plate holder was slid back in place and the holder was removed from the camera. Back under the cover of the dark-room tent, the glass plate was extracted, held over a tray, and the Developer, a previously prepared solution of Iron Sulfate and Acetic Acid or Pyrogallol, was poured all over it and rolled around over the plate for several minutes until the image was developed. The image was formed by the Developer reacting with the Silver Halide that had been just exposed to light and transforming it into a dark metallic Silver; the Silver Halide grains that had not reacted to the light earlier remained unaffected. After this treatment, the glass plate was rinsed with water to remove the Developer. Now it was safe to bring it out in the open. The glass plate was next placed into a tray containing the Fixing Agent, either a Sodium Thiosulfate Solution or that of Potassium Cyanide; you had to be very, very careful in case of the latter since it was poisonous. The Fixing Agent got rid of the unexposed Silver Halide. The plate was then again rinsed in water - this time to remove the Fixing Agent. Then sometimes a mixture of the Developer and Silver Nitrate was applied as an Intensifier. Now the plate was allowed to dry.

Sometimes the plate was dried over a spirit lamp and while still heated a solution of Varnish was poured over it and, like before, the plate was tilted around till it became fully coated. This application was done in order to protect the negative image that was now clearly etched on it.

The next thing to do now was develop a print. Here first a paper was prepared. Photo paper in those days didn't come out of a pack, but was prepared by undergoing two dippings and dryings - first in a solution of Egg White and a Chloride, and then in a solution of Silver Nitrate. This was called Albumen Paper and it came into vogue in 1850.

Now for the printing. This was an absurdly simple affair. You just aligned the paper over the negative and then left both in bright sunlight. A while later, the sun had done all your work for you, and you had your photograph. This print underwent several rinsings in water, Gold Chloride, and Sodium Thiosulfate, and then dried. Once it was dry it was ready to be mounted and framed.
By Sonal Panse
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