Home Edizioneed. 7 Silver Portraits

A fascinating, ancient photographic technique, reviewed through the eyes of a contemporary photographer.

Written by Dennis Ziliotto

It is called Wet Plate Collodion and it is a photographic process that allows images to be produced on glass or aluminum plates.

The first discovery is attributed to Englishman Frederick Scott Archer around 1850. Unfortunately, Archer died in 1854, without having had time to patent his discovery, or indeed witness the success it had in the years to come! image0
The process was later patented by James Ambrose Cutting of Boston and remained in the public domain worldwide, taking the name ‘ambrotyping’.

The name comes from the word Ambrose and is derived from the Greek ‘ambrotos’, immortal.

Only a few years later, a variant of the process called ferrotype, or tintype, became popular. The only difference was the support, tin or aluminum plates were used, hence the name ferrotype.

The procedure was based on collodion, which mixed with salts was spread on a glass or aluminum support. Then the glass plate was plunged into a silver nitrate solution: at this point, the plate was ready to be exposed, which took quite a long time, from a few seconds to a few minutes, depending on the available light. 

The whole process had to be completed before the plate dried. After exposure, developing and fixing would take place. Finally, the plate was varnished.

The manual skill and craftsmanship of this technique is at the root of its history: those who approach wet collodion know that they will have to study constantly in order to fully learn the long process.

The chemistry, which is used most often, is prepared by the photographers themselves.  On collodion among other things, there is an ongoing search for recipes: there are dozens of them in historical books, with different effects and consequences.

The study of light is fundamental. Every detail from the preparation of the plates, the handling of natural or artificial light, to exposure and development time calculations, requires a high degree of preparation on the part of the photographer.

That is why the person who becomes a collodist becomes a true craftsman of photography.

A portrait made with this technique is a unique piece of art: each photograph will never be the same as another, it is pure alchemy that makes imperfection a timeless ‘unicum’.

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