Getting (Back) Into Action

At last, after too many years of ‘thinking and talking about it’, I am working methodically and steadily to get back to where I was many years ago.

In the 1970s and 1980s I was a working professional photographer, with a good reputation, regular top clients with awards and exhibitions.

I stopped – a total life change and later health problems spun me round and round like Dorothy in Kansas.

I now find myself waking up, not in Oz, but in a wonderful home with a super wife and amazing children in the South of France and I am a photographer again.

I recovered my health and for the last three years I have practised and studied photography. I tried to start again where I left off – but I was a ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’, So much has changed. I have the advantage of having been trained in what is now referred to as analogue photography, the kind that uses film and chemistry to make a print to show people, not a computer screen and software. I see things as reflected light, not as a light source. I see things in my head, not on a small screen. I have to keep hold of the thought of my image for many hours before I can realise it and I can only capture a very few of these thoughts in the chemistry so every one has to count.

When I stopped, I was living in Edinburgh, just starting to work in platinum printing, so my first thought three years ago was to start there again. I went to the UK to go on a course in platinum printing, but this was cancelled so I attended a workshop run by John Brewer on collodion, wet-plate photography.

My tutors in art school and college did not teach wet-plate collodion, it was just mentioned in the history of photography. In my professional career I used Polaroid a lot, mostly 5x4inch, for a lot of testing and some creative work – along with some tableaux of SX70 stuff and experimental work – but my grounding was in large format photography, Ektachrome for commercial stuff and 6x6cm Hasselblad for portrait and ‘taking snaps of girls in frocks’ (or often not in frocks). My personal stuff is nearly all black and white and I was a very good printer.

Going back 150 years to learn collodion techniques did not seem a progressive step, but the flood of rubbish produced by modern digital recorders and the subsequent fall in the perceived worth of a photographic image, posed a problem.

If I was to re-establish myself as a photographer, I needed not only to now work with a very restricted palette of materials and equipment, but to learn how to look at this new world around me with my new eyes. I had quickly rejected the digital stuff as poor quality both for creative purposes; poor definition, loss of feeling for the medium, no camera movements to record what I visualised and could share – so many many things had been tossed away for the profits of the manufacturers and sold to the public as fashion accessories.

It is wonderful to find that equipment I once aspired to own and could not afford could now be bought for very little. Some stuff has become a fashion accessory – Polaroids, Leicas and Hasselblads fetch highish prices today, but they are still a fraction of what they cost me when I worked with them in the 1970s.

But the truth and verity (arete) of wet-plate had got into my soul. So I have been practising and practising for three years, as well as working with 5×4 film.

The low cost of equipment and the convenience of ebay, plus interest of collectors in buying old quality cameras for very little money has meant I have acquired a shed full of junk from which I am now selecting those items I will now be working with.

I tend to find myself going back to the 19th century for so many of my ideas. I am now working with 5x7inch (13x18cm) as my standard format and working with 24x30cm plates for negatives. The larger plates are only collodion and contacted printed onto chloride papers – but with 5×7 I have the choice of analogue film or wet-plate. The 5×7 inch format is a very pleasing size, not hard and angular like 10x8inch – it is also a lot less expensive to buy, easier to make and equipment is easily found.

One problem was to get a simple good 5×7 field camera. I do have a 5×7 Sinar P – but this is awkward on location, it is great in the studio. There are plenty of half plate cameras in junk shops and ebay still – but the plate holders are a pain, also changing lenses is awkward.

So I have solved this by adapting a half plate camera to a 5x7inch sinar back and fitting an old lens iris which can take lot of lenses.

At the same time I adapted my full plate (18x34cm) studio camera to take a 5x7inch back – it also has half plate back, but using a selection of modern plate holders is much less of a faff than keeping on repairing the old plate holders, all of which are different, making getting the depth of focus spot on is a bore – so my working cameras are all hybrids now (apart from my ‘modern” 1960 Sinars).

Here are some snaps of the adaptations I have made to a couple of old cameras to work with both the modern films and wet-plate medium.

My Half Plate Field Camera with a new Sinar 5x7inch back

My Half Plate Field Camera with a new Sinar 5x7inch back

My Studio Camera, fitted today with a 30mm Berthiot Flor - I use a 385mm Rodenstock Peztval and a 500mm Taylor Hobson as xell with this camera

My Studio Camera, fitted today with a 30mm Berthiot Flor – I use a 385mm Rodenstock Peztval and a 500mm Taylor Hobson as xell with this camera

My 25x25 Studio Camera with its lens hood

My 25×25 Studio Camera with its lens hood

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My Studio Camera with the adapted 5X7 Sinar back I have a lot of other backs for this camera including carte de visite stuff

My Studio Camera with the adapted 5X7 Sinar back I have a lot of other backs for this camera including carte de visite stuff

My Half Plate Field Camera with a new Sinar 5x7inch back

My Half Plate Field Camera with a new Sinar 5x7inch back

My Half Plate Field Camera with an 1861 Dallmeyer 2B lens

My Half Plate Field Camera with an 1861 Dallmeyer 2B lens

My Half Plate Field Camera with an 1861 Dallmeyer 2B lens

My Half Plate Field Camera with an 1861 Dallmeyer 2B lens

Scattered light

I have read that it takes ten thousand hours of practice to master a craft.

So if you work at you passion for ten hours a day every day, then in three years you should become proficient. This does not mean you will be good or creative, just proficient at what you do, playing the piano, painting or, in my case, photography.

From 1969 through to 1983 worked as a professional and artistic photographer, so I have already done the thousands of hours of practice in studios, darkrooms, film sets, in exotic and horrid locations so I have served my apprenticeship of thousand of hours of practice and I was beginning to get recognition for the use of my skills with publications and exhibitions. I taught photography for an American a university and lectured on photojournalism

Then I stopped and packed my stuff away

Three years ago I started to learn gain, the hours I spent at college and working have helped me to feel and see again. I found my world had changed, equipment had got bigger and is totally dependant on batteries, it was also much more expensive and was obsolete the moment you bought it.

I found the quality of the image I was seeing was weakened by a dependence on colour and electronic manipulation. Images are made to be looked at mostly on a screen, not held or seen by reflected light.

This is all good, now anyone, with no need for thousands of hours of learning and practice, can record a good image, which is correctly exposed and framed to remember an event or a place they visited. The is no need to adjust the apparatus, there is no need to consider the variables or to use these to interpret the scene, the computer chips will do this automatically to pre-determined visualisations.

I tried for a while to adapt to this new world, but I found that too much had been lost, so I thought I would go back to where I left off, working with large format analogue cameras and printing with high quality papers and processes. But this had all disappeared, the pares and chemistry has been replaced by digital processes and ink printing. Cameras using chemical films and sensitised silver salts were not being made, lenses were using electronics to decide exposure and focus and the instruction books only talk about the technical resources in their hundreds of pages, most say nothing about visualisation of the techniques of photography. Camera manuals were once only five of six pages and half of this was depth of field tables.

By accident I went on a wet plate collodion workshop in London, run by John Brewer. I had planned to go on a platinum printing workshop in Cambridge and flights were booked, but the instructor was ill, so as I was I the UK, I went to the london workshop.

Wet Plate is a technique which dominated photography in the 19th century, it was still in use commercially in some graphics applications until the middle of the 20th century, due to the high quality it allows. It is a simple process, but like many simple things, it needs a lot of practice – a lot.

It was refreshing to be a complete beginner again and I thought it would be a good way for me to get back into traditional photography.

So – three years later, I have started again.

It has meant a total immersion in learning and practicing. I wa not sure where I would find my ‘niche’, so I have experimented with a wide range of techniques and a large selection of equipment.

I already had a lot of stuff from my earlier work and I found that equipment which was once beyond my budget, was selling on ebay for pennies – so I bought a lot of cameras, lenses and equipment to experiment with.

I found that most cameras had not used for taking photographs, but were bought for collections – nearly all had problems, especially the ones over 100 years old. I have had to repair and replace parts, adapt film holders, . I also had to find the types of equipment I was happy with and which lenses I could use to give the “feel” I wanted for my ideas.

So,I now have a lot of stuff I will not be working with and will be putting back onto the market.

John Brewer has become a friend, he has come to our place in the South of France several times now to give his Wet Plate Collodion workshops.

I have built new darkrooms in our accommodation in Villa Roquette, I have also put a mobile darkroom on the road (essential for local landscape work with wet plate photography)

I have a selection of classic wood and brass cameras for sale, these are all adapted to work well for wet plate photography, all are complete, are ready to take photographs immediately and all have been used by me. I will give a collodion plate which I have taken with the camera.

All the cameras have a lens which is suitable for the format of the camera.

Prices depend on the size (half plate, full plate or larger) and the lens or lenses supplied, the prices start at 250 euro.

If you book one of our residential collodion workshops, you can choose a camera to work with and if you like it – keep it and we give you a discount of up to 50 percent off the price of the camera.

New Wetplate Workshop at VillaRoquette

Wetplate collodion photography workshop at VillaRoquette

John Brewer using a 19th century camera at Villa Roquette

Our next workshop at Villa Roquette wetplate collodion workshop september 2025 will be on the weekend of September 26/27 2015.

It is run by John Brewer wetplate collodion workshops.

The cost of the two day workshop is £325, or £475 which includes two nights full board accommodation. All materials are included and there is a wide selection of cameras and equipment for your use. Payment can be made in UK Sterling or euro

The accommodation includes a double room so you can bring your partner, there is only a small extra charge of £25 if the second person wishes to join us for lunches and dinner on the two days, breakfasts are included already.

Students on the course can come earlier and stay later, as many days as they like. All darkroom and lab facilities are available and our cameras can be used. There would be a charge for extra materials and chemistry used

An interesting feature of this course is the availability of a fully equipped mobile darkroom designed for wetplate work.

Wetplate collodion workshop at villaroquette with mobile darkroom

Mobile Darkroom camera on roof

Students on the collodion course can get into the beautiful local countryside and make wet plate collodion work. We use both tin and glass plates.