Toronto, February 11, 2014. Our January speaker was photographer Blake Chorley. Blake embarked last summer (2013) on a driving vacation in the Canadian Rockies with a big difference. Blake took along a huge 11 x 14 view camera, two brass wide-angle lenses, a darkroom, and the necessary wet plate chemistry to take and develop 11 x 14 tintypes and glass plates. This is his story as told to the PHSC members January 15th, 2014.
January’s meeting started off the 40th Anniversary of the PHSC with a perfect topic – wet plate photography. Blake Chorley has always liked landscape photography. Blake lived in Alberta for a number of years where he “fell in love” with the vast vistas of the Wild Rose province. He went back last summer and took 11 x 14 landscape tintypes of the Rockies using an old view camera. Blake is a commercial photographer in Toronto where he spends time indoors at studio shots and image development.
He discovered wet plates after making a series of prints using a dry plate process. Wet plate photography is a process popular between 1851 to the 1870s when dry plate photography took its place. Blake learned the wet plate process through reading in the library. Trial and error efforts led to him apprenticing with another photographer and later taking a course in the states with John Coffer.
Before embarking on his summer adventure, Blake searched for the right camera. He tried a 5 x 7 Deardorf but decided he had to “go big or go home”. This decision started his search for an 11 x 14 camera. Coming up dry, he commissioned a camera maker to build one for him. Blake was shocked to learn the maker was moving and wouldn’t have his camera ready until September – too late for his planned summer vacation. Desperately seeking an 11 x 14 once again, he finally found an old Eastman 2D owned by our vice-president John Kantymir who had picked it up the very day Blake called. John sold him the camera and a small 10 inch wide-angle brass lens. Blake’s camera maker did have time to make the custom back matching his Eastman 2D to the wet plates. His teacher, John Coffer sold him a second physically larger 13 inch wide-angle brass lens.
All that was left was a suitable portable darkroom and a tripod. Blake built his own darkroom which folded up and was “fairly” portable. He also built his wooden tripod. The tripod was based on an Eastman design (it looks huge compared to modern day tripods).
Blake started his adventure in Toronto driving a 4 x 4 pick-up. The truck bed was loaded with chemicals, supplies, equipment, and camping gear – he planned to live under the stars while in the Rockies. Traveling through the states to save time and fuel had its own challenges. Today, some of the chemicals used in the wet plate process are considered “controlled substances” as they can potentially be used in bomb-making. Blake was pulled over at one border crossing for a secondary inspection. Fortunately the chemicals had been stored up near the truck cab and the inspectors lost interest in their search after moving some heavy gear around. They were, however, keenly interested in his scales – having never heard of scales being used for photography, their minds automatically went to something more illicit…
Arriving in Banff, Blake started searching for the locations he had scouted out on previous trips. Unfortunately, this past summer (2013) saw major floods in Alberta. Many of his chosen locations were either changed or impassable. Worse, the rain continued for the first two weeks of his trip – less than ideal weather for old fashioned photography. He scouted out other locations to replace the flooded out venues.
Blake camped in a tent for the whole two months – off the grid, few conveniences, cooking over an open fire, and on his own. Nature was potentially a problem. Animals from ground squirrels to bears visited him. Bear spray was always close at hand as well as a big buck knife. There were bear sightings at about half of his shooting locations but fortunately he did not need the spray or knife.
Blake told the audience he took close to 150 – 200 images that summer. Sixty shots on the wet plate media turned out with just a fraction of those what he considered to be good photographs. Today in our digital era, a photographer can easily take over 200 images in one brief outing lasting an hour or less!
The tintype process uses metal or glass plates as a medium. Modern metal plates have a plastic film on them and once it is peeled, they are ready to use. Glass plates must first be polished then they too are ready to go. Glass can be used as a negative for contact printing or as a positive if bleached and backed with a black background. Before a plate is used in the camera, collodion must be applied. The syrupy collodion stays wet for about ten minutes at most. Once coated, the prepared plate is placed in a bath of silver nitrate to sensitize it, then mounted in the plate holder and rushed to the camera while still wet to take a picture. Back at the darkroom, developer is poured on the exposed, still wet media. The plate is gently and continuously rocked until an image appears. The plate with its image is then rinsed in water stopping the development process. A ruby red window in the dark room gives enough visibility to see the emerging image (wet plates are insensitive to red light). Once developed and washed, the plates are light safe. A potassium cyanide solution is used as a fixer. The image which looked like a negative at first turns positive as the dark parts of the image wash away in the fixer letting the black backing show through. When the photograph looks good, the plate is taken out of the fixer and given a final water wash.
The amount of gear Blake had to carry limited where he could shoot. Some locations were miles away from the closest place to park and he would have needed many trips to carry his gear. It took five trips on average to get all the gear to each location (over 500 pounds)! The first plate he took was a trial exposure taken close to the truck. He found that conditions were much different in the mountains, compared to those in Ontario. Chemicals behaved differently because of the altitude, wind and the humidity and as a result some chemical formulae worked only after some tinkering.
He faced many other challenges too: Getting a consistent clean water supply was difficult. Bugs fell in the chemicals as he mixed fresh batches on a campsite picnic table. Fellow campers thought he was making illicit drugs (he had to inform park wardens at each site). Moraine Lake was one of the most difficult locations to shoot. Arriving at 5am, Blake took 5 trips to bring his gear to his shooting location atop the “Rock Pile,” a 1.5km trail with a steep 30m gain in elevation. Tourists got in the way. And animals…
The wet plate process is sensitive to UV light which the human eye cannot see, making some colours blend together. Light and shadows were a factor in scheduling as well prompting many early morning shoots. Since it was the main tourist season, he sometimes had to wait hours to get shots free of people. He became a tourist attraction himself – people wanted him to explain the process and take his picture standing next to his big wet plate camera. In some locations he set up the camera far from the darkroom. He would begin an exposure then run to the darkroom to ready another plate. Returning to the camera, he sometimes found its control knobs had been fiddled with ruining the plate.
As he left Jasper Park heading for Waterton Park, catastrophe stuck! His darkroom
flew off the back of his truck exploding on the highway. What a mess. A buckle holding one strap tight had broke sending the whole device smashing down. Fortunately, he knew people in the area and after calling in a few favours via emergency phone calls, he was able to do a patchwork repair on is darkroom and continue on to his third and final park.
Blake wrapped up his talk showing a few of the best big tintypes. He was amazed how nature had recovered from natural and man-made disasters, changing the landscape drastically in some locations since he was there last; only a few years prior. The experience gained on the Alberta trip will help when he goes to Algonquin Park this coming summer. Blake plans to do a series of tintypes in every province for the upcoming 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation (2017).
It was an interesting talk on a modern take on an old process. Please visit Blake’s website at www.blakechorley.ca for more information.
PHSC President, Mark Singer, February 4, 2014