Wet collodion is a challenging process. Just when you think that everything is under control, some change in circumstances will put you back at square one.
Witness the wet plate weekend at Lacock Abbey in July, in which an enthusiastic group of collodion photographers descended on the former home of William Henry Fox Talbot. The weekend was kindly organised by Mark Voce and Tony Richards. Roger Watson, curator of the Fox Talbot Museum, generously allowed us to access the grounds and cloisters of the abbey and regularly dropped in to offer his support.
Things started well enough on the Saturday morning. It was raining hard, so rather than use my dark box I set up in the “Osterman darkroom”, a converted horse box in the wood yard of the abbey. It soon got pretty hot and humid (so much so that my glass plates were steaming up again as soon as they were cleaned) but nonetheless when the rain stopped I managed to make a few decent plates of the house and grounds. There was plenty of interest from visiting tourists, who I think took great pleasure in seeing present-day photographers working with Victorian equipment in Talbot’s back yard.
So far so good. Sunday was a different matter, however. Even by mid-morning the sun was very hot and it was difficult to keep the chemistry under control. Every one of my plates was fogged. I diluted the developer with an equal quantity of water, but still had fogging problems. Tony lent me some developer with restrainer (sugar) but it didn’t help. I switched to using my negative developer, which contains less iron sulphate and more acid, and things were a little better but it was still impossible to get a clean image. By this stage Ray Spence had arrived for a chat, so I took a break and went to the pub!
After a quick drink, I thought things through and decided to switch to my back-up silver bath. That, combined with the use of negative developer, largely solved the problems. The temperature had dropped a little too, which helped. I’m still not entirely sure what the problem was. The first silver bath I was using was quite new, so possibly it was a little overactive and the high temperature exacerbated the problem. Also, the second bath had been kept in a cool box, so hadn’t warmed up in the mid-day sun.
The weekend was far from a disaster – I got one or two reasonable plates, although nothing was quite up to the standard I wanted. Regardless, it was a real pleasure to hang out with such nice people in a beautiful location, and it was a good learning experience. Working with the wet collodion process in the familiarity of your own darkroom certainly has its challenges, but when taking it on the road you really have to raise your game to a whole new level.