Stepping Back in Time: The Collodion Wet Plate Process

While there are plenty of aficionados still shooting film, there are very few capturing images onto small sheets of glass, and then playing with potassium cyanide, naked flames, and lavender oil varnish as part of their post-production, techniques which date back to the mid-19th century. In this short video, documentary photographer David Gillanders discusses the collodion wet plate process and explains why he loves creating these unique images.

In the video, David is producing 8.5" x 6.5" plates that were shot on an 11" x 14" tailboard camera, custom-made for him by Black Art Woodcraft in New York, a company that specializes in wet plate equipment and, unfortunately, are no longer making cameras. The lens dates back to the 1800s and was bought by David from a stall in Paris.

The collodion process requires a level of technical skill and physical involvement that seems completely alien to today's digital ephemerality. David's haunting images feel like they have a history to them, and in a way they do: more than a hundred and fifty years of photographic image-making can be felt through every plate. There is a physicality to both the finished product and to the process itself, giving a greater sense of connection to the image being created, an aspect that has in many ways become lost as technology has evolved and our world has become increasingly digitized.

Those wishing to try the wet collodion process for the first time should be sure to seek out proper guidance, as it's not too difficult to inadvertently create explosive substances or cyanide gas.

All images courtesy of David Gillanders.

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Roger Morris's picture

These are stunningly beautiful photographs.
Despite years of playing around with digital black and white photos, and doing so in a variety of image applications ... I've never even come close to this look ... and I doubt many (or any) other digital photographers have either.
The depth and luminosity are almost hypnotic.

Hans Rosemond's picture

The funny thing is that in person is where they shine. On a screen they’re pretty. In the flesh they are beautiful.

romain VERNEDE's picture

Very nice process but why calling it Alchemy and other BS?
It doesn't need more fairy stuff around as it's a beauty on its own...