Effects of chemistry and light which cannot be duplicated – or predicted – are part of the charm of 'obsolete' photo processes

Note; this article originally appeared in an abbreviated form in Men’s File magazine.

Mo-Ti, a tool-handy Chinese philosopher espousing universal love, constructed the first pinhole camera obscura around 400 BC, naming it the ‘locked treasure room’ (soding sang bao shu). Aristotle and Euclid also played with light in boxes, but it took another fifteen hundred years for Persian scientist Alhazen to accurately describe the geometries and properties of light, in 1021.  Eight hundred years later, an inveterate French tinkerer fabulously self-named Nicéphore Niepce, managed to fix an image from a lensed camera obscura onto paper. After ruining that first print in 1822 (while attempting its duplication), by 1825 he had his ‘heliograph’ sorted, with only 8 hours exposure time required per image.  Capturing the souls of people had to wait until after Niepce died, when his business partner Louis Daguerre perfected one of their experimental processes, using fumes of iodine and bromine on polished silver, with exposure reduced to seconds.  Humbly-named, Daguerreotypes were the first commercially successful photographic process, and exploded in popularity.  You can still make a Daguerreotype today, with a little low-tech equipment and a few very toxic chemicals; the resultant image is elusive – the surface is a mirror, with only ‘whites’ captured on the light-altered silver, the ‘darks’ supplied by reflections of the viewer’s clothing, and shadows.  Of all photographic processes, a Daguerreotype requires viewer participation; the magic mirror only works with an audience.

Sculptor Jeff Decker just outside Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park

Frederick Scott Archer rendered polished silver plates ‘obsolete’ in the 1850s by suspending silver nitrate in a sticky liquid (collodion, the first ‘plastic’), which was poured over a glass or metal plate, exposed to light, and fixed by salts.  ‘Wet Plate’ photography became the new standard, producing very fine images, the only disadvantage being collodion’s need to remain wet while in process – if the plate dried, no image – thus photos were taken near a darkroom for immediate development, or mobile darkrooms hauled to sites of interest, like Civil War battlefields, where cannonballs and bodies were typically re-arranged for proper effect.  You can still make a Wet Plate photo today, with a few chemicals and a box camera; as the silver nitrate solution is sensitive only to the blue end of the spectrum (much of it invisible Ultraviolet), the resultant image is unpredictable – we literally cannot see what will be captured.  Thus Wet Plate sees something we cannot, which is its mystery, and its charm, especially in portraiture, where natural variations of skin pigmentation enhanced by UV add ‘character’, much loved by men, and dreaded by women.

Philanthropist and eugenicist George Eastman perfected a method of fixing silver nitrates into a flexible, if flammable, nitrocellulose film, and sold a cheap box camera to hold that film in rolls, and by the 1890s his Kodaks had rendered every other type of photography obsolete. Eastman’s invention was the standard for 100 years, until digital cameras appeared in the 1990s, and film became obsolete. You can still take photos with film; it has beautiful qualities – Polaroids too. Each successive iteration of photography, from those first, day-long sun engravings on bitumen-coated stone slabs in the 1820s, thru the latest variable-focus light field cameras (coming shortly to your nearest cheapo electronics megastore), renders the previous method completely obsolete; this is Progress.  No?

Publisher Buzz Kanter and his hot Harley JDH; Burns, Oregon

But the notion of Progress is itself obsolete; we are inundated by a growing pile of ‘improved’ stuff, and question its contribution to our quality of life; is our 20 megapixel iPhone camera making us happy?  Old photo techniques require a bit of skill, time, and practice, all qualities our elders from Confucius to Ben Franklin have told us develop our souls.  Likewise for old vehicles; we love a vintage motorcycle partly because it needs us, and rewards our effort with an almost Buddhist experience; simply enjoying the ride, having let go the expectation of being fastest or best.  Same with an old car, or hand tools, or words written on paper, all consigned to the scrap bin by the New, yet, when the ceaseless chatter of Capital’s media is brushed aside, all these things are perfectly reasonable options for using as their makers intended.  Because they require our attention, they cannot be taken for granted, and because you have ignored the demands of Capital on your process of choice, you have ceased for that moment to be a credit card automaton, and have become more human, understanding better the enormous range of choices within your grasp; the experience of such freedoms may yet become a habit.  For what is a man, if not the agent of his own destiny?

This is perhaps the first Wet Plate/collodion photograph of a moving motorcycle, taken outside Burns, Oregon, with a 1960s era Speed Graphic 4"x5" camera; as the ASA of silvered collodion is about '1' (as opposed to 100-400ASA typical of roll film), exposure tend to be 1 second in full sun. That's a long time to catch something moving without a massive flash array…but I'll keep experimenting. It's possible!

- Text; Paul d’Orléans.  Photos; Paul d’Orléans and Susan McLaughlin


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