Is wet plate photographer just a snake oil salesman?

July 27, 2015  •  4 Comments

At least the rain has come. Long, thorough, with the dark sky and roaring thunders.  Absolutely "no fly" time for ultralight planes. And for wet plate landscapists. 

The combination of a fragile process with changing and sometimes unpredictable conditions can be challenging. Temperature is too high or too low. There is too much of the sunlight and all highlights are blown out, of there is any Sun and the light is too dull. And the wind, with its sudden blasts, the biggest fear, the arch enemy number one.


These are obstacles you have to fight all the time. Limits, that tide you and you feel like when you are running in a weight vest. You make a perfect plate, but the next one is a moody low contrast failure, and the next one, and the next one. And you can only guess: "It can't be overexposure, I used the same time as before, is afternoon, sunlight intensity should be decreasing, maybe I caught a false light, oh no, isn't plate holder leaking again, or there is too much of sunlight and the red glass on portable darkroom is not strong enough, but no, the plate is mess up so uniformly, it looks like if there was a massive UV light explosion, maybe a huge ozone hole open just above my head..." 

Landscape tintype, wet plate photographyLandscape tintype, wet plate photography

Overstepping of limits is an essential part of the joy of creation. The question is, are the limits of an obsolete collodion wet plate process just an artificial way how to make our boring pictures unique? Are we, as wet plate photographers, producing fakes, pictures that are just pretending? Or, on the contrary, is the painless way of producing a never-ending stream of photographs with modern digital cameras the main reason, why people don't believe in photography anymore? And the contemporary wet plates has the ambition (and potential) to help to return photography its lost authenticity? 

What is your opinion?


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Michael Rubin(non-registered)
To me photography has always been about a contrivance, a constraint. Whether that constraint is the process, or the camera, or the scene -- the art in the artform is "What can i say given these artificial limitations?" They are poems, think of haiku or verse, that have forced limits and we make our poems inside those bounds. The wet plate is your chosen constraint (black&white, uncropped, etc. are mine) and you create in that playground. You still do the best you can there. Some constraints are harder than others. Bravo!
David Kachel(non-registered)
Apologies for forgetting to add my conclusion. There is no "edit" option on your blog.
The conclusion: Of course not! Wet plate photography is no more snake oil than any other process. A photographer doing nothing but digital capture and print can just as easily be a snake oil salesman.
You've seen them. They make videos of themselves climbing over rocks in their official Crocodile Hunter outfits, carrying a camera, but no tripod, and then they sell bad prints of their bad vacation photographs in big gaudy stores for ridiculous amounts of money, making claims about their big money deals.
Now, THAT is a snake oil salesman!
You don't have anything to worry about.
David Kachel(non-registered)
There is only one reason to use this or any other process...
because it best expresses what you are trying to express to the viewer.
The problem with old processes is that many of the practitioners believe that it is the process itself that is the expression and the thing that should be admired. This is the reason so many "alternative process" photographs are so painfully, undeniably, irretrievably, deadly BORING!
The practitioners believe that because they use an old and difficult process, they are somehow relieved of the responsibility to produce a decent image, worth seeing.
The process should make a good image better. If the image is no good, why waste time and money making it only, cute?
Eric Nelson(non-registered)
If one can escape the trap of shooting in the style of the 1800’s then yes it can be a way to break from the digital stream, yet I’m a part of that stream. I’ve dabbled with wet plate but made platinum/palladium, albumen etc prints for years. Now in Bangkok I’ve not had time or motivation to setup a darkroom here. I do revel in the immediacy of the medium as much as I enjoyed coating paper and having 5 contact frames under the UV’s cooking prints.
I’ve not made a print since moving here (over 3 years) which is sad.

But back to your question, I just cringe when I saw an alt process practitioner shooting old barns and buildings and contributing nothing new to photography BUT he/she is happy right?
It’s sad but they don’t have the vision and not many people do and in some ways that’s OK. It’s not ok to call it new or art or groundbreaking. When the first sentence of an artist’s statement is about process then it isn’t art, it’s hoping the process will make it so.
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