Unreformierte Photographie

Aesthetik des Verzichts

Namibia Collodion: Technical Challenges

The Lone Tree: Making ofTaking a collodion photo in the Namib Desert. Courtesy of Martin Zimelka; used with kind permission. The mobile lab is visible perched on the back of the pickup.

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.

A Desert Sojourn

There is a farm in Namibia called Niedersachsen. Situated on the edge of the Namib desert and the foot of the Khomas Hochland, just north of the Khuiseb Canyon, it’s one of the older established farms, and comprises approximately 18,500 hectares – or 71 square miles, 45,715 acres, 185 square kilometres if you prefer.

It belongs to a family with whom over the last decade I have struck a close friendship. But aside from the companionship what draws me back to Niedersachsen is the solitude.

I admit that I am introvert, and occasionally I need to be completely alone for a time. And on those occasions I will occasionally pack my gear into my old Land Cruiser and head out there for a few days. There is a campsite on the farm which is about 7.5 kilometres away from the house – if I climb a nearby hill, I can just about see the lights of the house at night. But otherwise the place is absolutely, utterly peaceful; it’s just me and the zebras and the occasional jackal.

I have to bring my own food, of course, and I have to bring my own water, because Niedersachsen is – to put it mildly – arid. There is no real cellphone reception, and certainly no internet. There is not much firewood because there are very few trees, and euphorbias are best not put in fires.

I am not the first whom this patch of solitude has sheltered.

In 1940, a pair of German geologists named Henno Martin and Hermann Korn fled into this part of the Namib, to escape internment and the complications of the second world war. The South African administration of the Southwest Africa territory – which would become Namibia in 1990 – had decreed that German men were to be interned for the duration of the conflict in order to prevent sedition. Martin and Korn had come to SWA in order to escape the coming storm in the first place, and so they formulated the phrase for which, in German, they are famous: Wenn es Krieg gibt, gehen wir in die Wüste; “If war comes, we’re going into the desert.”

They packed as much equipment, fuel and supplies as they could fit into a car, a light truck and a trailer, laid a false trail to the area surrounding the Brandberg mountain, and disappeared into the rough, inhospitable badlands surrounding the Khuiseb.

They lived in a series of hide-outs, one of which is located on the farm Niedersachsen, and eked out something like survival for two and a half years, when Hermann Korn fell ill and the difficult decision to return to Windhoek was made.

After being briefly detained and paying a fine, they were set free.

Henno Martin later wrote a book about their experience, entitled The Sheltering Desert, which is in my opinion a mandatory read for anyone travelling in this region.

As it happens, Hermann Korn was also an introvert and known for his need for solitude; I feel a certain kinship with him.

And so I return to this campsite, which is perhaps two hours’ walk from the geologists’ hideout, and I seek its quiet.

When I began to address the many technical challenges associated with shooting collodion wet-plates in the Namib (more about which in another essay, I decided that the place I wanted to field-test the mobile lab was Niedersachsen. And so in early September 2013 two friends and I drove out to this remote place and with their help I was able to create four or five plates – of which the three ’keepers’ are presented here.

I feel that they successfully capture the atmosphere of this magical place, and I am pleased to share them with you.