Toronto. Stephen Brule, a young Ryerson graduate practicing the ancient art of wet-plate photography, spoke to us in September. Stephen brought along a slide presentation plus his home made plate preparation and development desk, a massive studio style 4800 watt-second flash and a colourful sparkling backdrop.
Stephen divided his talk into three parts: the presentation proper; set-up and studio exposure of a subject; and preparation, exposure and development of a wet-plate tintype.
He was a bit uncertain and hesitant as he started his talk, but quickly warmed to the audience and blossomed into a truly professional speaker once he began his demonstration. His spoke of growing up in rural Ontario in the rich farmland of the Lake Erie – Niagara corner of our province. He spoke of his family’s old Kodak Six-16 camera and the dreamy views he saw when looking through its tiny view finder. Earlier days spent hiking the Niagara gorge area prompted his like of nature in his photography.
His first camera (a 4 megapixel digital) gave him more freedom of expression but its crisp, clear prints lacked the charm of looking through the tiny viewfinder of the Kodak Six-16. This led him to a series of photographs taken with his digital camera through the old Kodak viewfinder.
He gave a commendable history of Scott-Archer’s wonderful wet plate process and its flexibility to make both negatives and positive images in a camera. He uses an old (late1800s/early1900s) view camera made by the Century Camera Company (owned by some folks who once worked for Rochester Optical) called a Century View and authentic old brass lenses. For his demonstration this evening, he had an early Petzval lens fixed at about f/4. A lens cap held on the camera (and together) with duct tape served as a shutter. Depending on the chemistry used, the plates have a modern day equivalent of about ISO 0.3! (And I thought the 1950s Kodachrome ASA 10 was slow.)
As he prepared a plate to go in the camera, he explained that black enamelled aluminum protected with a clear plastic sheet (peeled off before the plate was used) replaced the old japanned iron sheets once used to make tintypes. To simulate outdoors sunlight, Stephen used a massive burst of 4,800 watt-second electronic flash from two heads – enough power to warm the eyes of his subject as our VP Ashley Cook discovered (she was the subject of this demo). Focussing of the subject was performed with the flash heads’ modelling lights.
Once in focus, the subject had to stay still as the plate was prepared for the camera. It took many minutes and considerable skill to flow the collodion solution evenly over the surface of the plate. Once the solvent had nearly evaporated, leaving the plate tacky, the plate was immersed in a silver-nitrate bath held in a deep skinny light-tight tank where, when removed, the previously light insensitive plate would be light sensitive and ready for exposure in the camera.
During his slide talk Stephen showed that wet plates were primarily sensitive to the blue and ultra violet end of the spectrum, distorting the colours of the scene. That, plus the slow speed and lenses with a shallow depth of field, gives wet-plate photographs their characteristic look.
The total process is incredibly slow, making it so important to correctly choose and frame the subject of the photograph. In his work, Stephen shoots outdoors using tree trunks, walls, etc to let his models relax as the exposure time slowly ticks by. During his presentation, he explained his decision to learn photography but practice in the niche of Wet Plate portraiture. Questions were raised and responded to during his presentation. While all eyes were enthusiastically focussed on his demonstration, he patiently explained his process step by step. A wonderful evening of learning from a young master of the technology.