Collodion Wet Plate Photography by Andrew Welsh

Wet plate photography has long fascinated me, so when I saw Andrew talking about his foray into the field of wet plate photography on Facebook, I wanted him to share it with you.  Thanks, Andrew, for sharing your journey and your gorgeous photos!

In 2011, the renewed excitement of developing my first roll of film since the 90’s, along with being accustomed to instant results, led me to try instant peel apart film (FP100c and FP3000b). Amazed by the quality, yet unsatisfied with the cropping that most medium-format film cameras foist upon those glorious prints, I soon moved to large format photography (4x5), partly because 4x5 shooting was different, exciting and new to me, and partly because I could fill the frame on those instant prints. The fact that practically no wedding and high school senior portrait photographers were shooting 4x5 was also appealing.

Simultaneously, I began to see modern tintype wet plate portraiture in various large format photography forums, and was very intrigued. It was the intersection of “instant” photography (since wet plates must be poured, shot, and developed within 15 minutes), large format photography, and photographic history that captured my imagination. I had vowed to learn wet plate photography “when I grow up.” 

To date, all of my photography except for the basics in high school photo class, was self-taught. And while I was absolutely confident I could learn collodion wet plate photography on my own, I knew I’d also end up wasting a lot of time and money working through all the mistakes. It is a process loaded with opportunity for things to go wrong, and without guidance, I’d fumble through most of it. I soon concluded that taking a workshop instead would be most efficient. The opportunity for me came this year (2016) when I had a peculiar wedding schedule with only one wedding in June. 

I learned that within the collodion wet plate community, two workshops worldwide were considered the absolute best- John Coffer and Scully & Osterman. And how fortuitous that both of these workshops were right here in Rochester NY. I chose John Coffer’s June 2016 “all-inclusive” workshop, as it represented the best value for what I wanted to learn (the complete process through to print, and shooting in the field versus a studio). I later learned that Scully and Osterman themselves learned the craft from John Coffer. After a weekend of intensive training, I was on the path to attaining my goal of creating collodion wet plate images almost anywhere, and incorporate it into my primary photography business.

Determined to meet this goal, I quickly gathered all the needed components and built a crude dark box. I practiced making plates on my dogs, my children, friends and family. I practiced carrying my portable darkroom around, setting it up, shooting, then tearing it down. I learned how long it would take (about 15 minutes setup and 10 to take down) and to simulate what it would be like in a compressed time frame like a wedding or portrait session. All this practice was leading up to bringing this “live” to client sessions.

By late September, I had the ideal senior portrait client—a family I’d worked with twice before for senior portraits, whose favorite family photo on their wall was of them dressed in old west clothing in a sepia-toned print. I arrived to the session early and set up my portable darkroom, minimizing the time impact on the client, and kicking off the portrait session with a tintype:

Later that week, I had an opportunity to try one at a wedding as 2nd shooter. The primary photographer approved of the plan and while she did the family portraits, I set up my darkroom and only imposed on the bride and groom for the 1-2 minutes to setup and take the photo, with the expectation that this was an experiment. While I did not have any major flaws in the wet plate process itself, I had done poorly at an important part—posing them in an interesting way. The novelty of the process did intrigue them, but they were not my clients. This was about the safest wedding for me to fall short.

Two weeks later, the stars aligned to try a wet plate with my own clients. I kept bringing my kit along “just in case” the opportunity arose. I had a wedding with 2 hours to shoot portraits, and a groom who had fallen out of a deer hunting tree stand a few weeks prior, and was wearing a back brace, and not overly mobile to do a lot of portraits. What better way to have a subject who wanted to and practically had to sit still! 

The very next week, my next bride & groom had 3 hours for portraits! I knew from our engagement session they had a willingness and patience to try new things, so while they relaxed on the party bus, I set up my kit once more, this time at a park, and pulled off my best wet plate to date:

The excitement from them as I fixed the plate made it worth all the effort. And these clients now have a unique piece of archival artwork that will outlast their lives, is rarely performed at a wedding, and a fun experience in creating it and witnessing it coming to fruition. This was only possible with the determination to attain this goal, and the willingness to repeatedly practice all the steps on the path to mastering the technique. If you gain anything from this article, may you go and try that new thing you’ve always wanted to, and know that sticking to it through the challenges, will you attain your goal.

See more of Andrew's work here:

website | facebook