Shooting collodion wet-plates is an involved process, even compared to conventional analogue photography.
First the surface of the plate must be prepared. In the case of glass it must be absolutely clean. I usually wash the plate carefully in piping hot water and detergent before rinsing it off generously with distilled water. Traditionally the plate was also polished with calcium carbonate – known as whiting chalk – which is a laborious process but which rewards the photographer with very clean plates.
The collodion – a mix of ether, ethanol, nitrocellulose, and small amounts of certain halogen salts – is poured onto the plate in a puddle which is then flowed across the plate by tilting it until the collodion covers the entire plate in a smooth layer. Immediately afterwards the plate must be immersed in a solution of silver nitrate; this sensitises the collodion, forming compounds called silver halides, which are reactive to light.
While the plate is still wet it is transferred into a plate holder, which is inserted in the camera and then exposed. The exposed plate must immediately be developed – while the plate is still wet – in a solution of iron vitriol, acetic acid, a little ethanol and water. This turns the latent image into an actual image, which is subsequently fixed in conventional photographic fixer (sodium thiosulfate, also known as hypo), washed in water, and finally dried and varnished.
Since all this must take place before the emulsion on the plate dries – hence its name: the wet-plate process – this necessarily means that the photographer must work in the immediate vicinity of a lab. Most collodion photographers who work in the field have thus built some form of mobile laboratory which allows them to handle the chemicals safely and most importantly in carefully-controlled light.
Namibia’s climate and environment poses a number of technical challenges which I had to overcome. In the summer it is hot and humid, and in the winter very cold and dry. The summer daytime ambient temperature is actually often higher than raw collodion’s nominal boiling point of 35˚ C. The solvents in the emulsion would boil and sublime off the plate before the coating has a chance to form.
Dust is a problem: How do I keep my plates clean? The roads are a challenge: all of the places in which I would like to take pictures are remote, with gravel roads and difficult trails leading to them. Keeping my chemistry intact, and keeping my plates intact, is a a concern.
The low ambient humidity and high temperatures mean that evaporation off the plate is definitely an issue: while in Europe I might have a few minutes to take my picture, my “window of opportunity” is much narrower in Namibia.
The challenges: formidable, but not insurmountable. The rewards?
To my knowledge I will be the only person doing this in Namibia. And collodion plates have a look that nothing else quite matches. They are evocative, timeless, and a sort of quiet protest against the over-saturated digital avalanche. And that is its own reward.