Last week I was staying with a group of writers in a rambling old house in the woods and photographer Gordon Fraser was there with this Katamari-looking portable darkroom and trays filled with mysterious fluids. Every day these glass plates would transform to little windows of shadow, revealing the woods around us.
I was so excited to sit for him– this involved a neck brace thingy, as one has to remain very still, and a camera that looked like a cross between a wonder cabinet and a concertina. Also there was a pink velvet cape involved. The less said about the sheep’s skull the better.
I asked Gordon about this magical process and this is what he had to say:
When did you first start taking photos with antique cameras? What prompted you to start working in this way?
Well, there is a long long story about how i came to end up taking photos, full stop. However, the vintage camera thing happened because i was specialising in making fine art photographs with my iPhone and one of the post processing styles i was interested in was a Man Ray style of solarisation, which i then started to tinker with and found “plate photography” overlays. I liked the vintage look and decided to find out more…and then I saw a video on youtube of a guy who did the actual Victorian process and I decided I’d have to have a go. It was around June 2012 I decided to try to get involved and it was Sept 2012 by time I got a camera and took a course. You need to take a course I think, there are serious health and safety issues involved here as some of the chemicals you need to mix up are very dangerous indeed.
Where did this particular camera come from and does it have a history?
The one I used for your image was a late 1800’s Tailboard Studio camera that shoots 10″x12″ plates…that’s what you call Ultra Large Format these days. I got it from India and it was in quite spectacularly good condition. My other camera is a smaller french one from Paris 1885 and it was a mess and needed a lot of work to get going. One of the more interesting aspects about your portrait was that I used a period accurate lens with a Petzval design. That is one of the reasons there is such a fall off in to out of focus and also why the out of focus areas look so beautiful. Those old lenses have a focal plane that is quite unlike any modern lens and it gives the picture a very specific look that I find quite beautiful.
I’ve noticed from viewing your other portraits that you seem to capture the essence of a person, and not just their image. Do you see a difference in collodion portraiture versus other cameras?
Yes indeed I do. The collodion process is slow and involved. The plates themselves have about 100th the light sensitivity of your digital camera. That means unless you are using very powerful studio strobe lights or are outside on a bright sunny day, you are looking at exposure times measured in seconds up to minutes. Outside in the shade in the summer your shot was, I think from memory, 15 seconds. That’s a long time for someone to put on a forced smile…there is nowhere to hide. This means that often a sort of tranquility or thoughtfulness appears in the sitters’ features. It’s as if you are truly seeing in to someones soul. My portraits using my previous digital cameras were not the same.
The fragility and physicality of this process is fascinating– can you talk about your favourite part of this labor-intensive method?
I think my favourite part is the bit at the very end. With the process you spend days preparing chemicals, cutting and polishing glass, making sure everything is clean and ready to go. Then there is the ritual, like a dance, for making the plate light sensitive, pouring on the collodion brew, dunking it in the silver bath and the short prayer to the collodion gods in the hope it will all work. Then the short 5 minute window of opportunity where you must compose and make that perfect image. Counting out in your head the seconds till you put the lens cap back on…then back in the dark room to develop, followed by the climax, my favourite bit, The Fix. The fix is the moment when your plate turns from one state in to another and you see the final image appear before your eyes. It’s amazing. I’ve done loads of plates now but every time I see that happen I smile.
This is the first of 3 posts celebrating Edgar Allen Poe’s 203rd birthday on Thursday the 19th.
Lofoten is where my great-grandparents were from. My great-grandfather was a fisherman, like the Old man in Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelstrӧm”. The search for one’s roots always involves a bit of myth-making, and I find this a fortuitous geneology. (I live in a country that makes a fair bit of money from ancestral tourism, and it’s with some chagrin I admit to wanting to visit these islands.) But I first knew of this place from the Poe story.
The Maelstrӧm itself is exaggerated by Poe: it’s a swallower of ships and devourer of whales, appearing as “a smooth, shining and jet-black wall of water, inclined to the horizon at an angle of some forty-five degrees, speeding dizzily, round and round with a swaying and sweltering motion, and sending forth to the winds an appalling voice…”
For all his sentimentality and persistent melancholy, Poe’s work has been one of the earliest influences on my own writing. I am indebted to him, not least for giving me a certain mythic vision of my roots, even if it is the howling, watery maw of hell itself!