A Conversation with Chase Norton About Wet Plate Photography
Photography today embraces both digital and analog technologies. Photographer Chase Norton has recently been experimenting with an antiquated process with a present-day mindset. Chase Norton will be teaching a course on Adobe Photoshop Lightroom on Saturday, February 21, from 9 am-4 pm. For more information: http://www.outreach.hawaii.edu/pnm/programs/2015/EVENT-L13598.asp
What inspired you to start experimenting with wet plate photography?
I am 29 years old and entered into the world of photography late in my life. This means I began my true discovery of the art within the realm of digital tools and felt lost among a sea of the same. Sure, it is just a tool and it is really your vision that translates to some concept of art. Regardless, I felt the marathon had started hours ago and I arrived late to the party. So what does one do? Join the masses of the latest technology? Embrace the modern camera and find my vision? Or delve deep into the history of photography and attempt to seek a tool that resonates with who I am and my beliefs in a personal creation?
One evening a friend let me borrow and tinker around with his old Kodak 3A, which is, to most of the world, a nonfunctional display piece. Did the shutter mechanism still work? Yes! Hours were spent modeling 3D spool fitters to adapt 120 film to work inside of it. In the process, I realized I would be changing the format to allow the capture of a beautiful panoramic size. I was excited and went out to frame a building…Click! Ah, the thrill of capturing light with a camera over 100 years old! Though, even with this modification, I found myself limited—by the continually disappearing film stock, limited by the format, limited by all the factors film photographers face that are outside of their control. And that’s where Wet Plate comes in.
Wet Plate Photography is truly having full control over your art. Want to change the format? Cut your glass a different size. Want more contrast? Let your collodion ripen for longer. There is never any worry about film stock being discontinued as you are the film creator. Your emulsion of ether/cadmium bromide/potassium iodide/silver nitrate will always be here.
The muddled art of modern digital photography continues to disturb me. Do not get me wrong, digital photography is an incredible tool and can produce stunning and moving pieces of art. However, nowadays almost every human has a camera in their pocket and a digital venue to share their work to be “liked” or “favorited”. These are often captured on an automatic setting with HDR features built in and later all forms of color, contrast, and saturation are modified. The process, the work, the understanding of what goes into capturing light has long been forgotten. If we have forgotten how the tools work, how could we ever really call it our work?
What do you look for and what are you trying to communicate in the image you photograph?
Wet Plate Photography is as much about communicating the experience of the art as it is with the image itself. I often find my subject to be individuals that I can sit down and talk with for a while, bring them into the darkroom, and show them the process of creating a medium for capturing light from beginning to end.
An aspect of collodion work that I love is the raw and detailed features it captures in a subject. The wrinkles are there, the tired bags under the eyes are obvious, the pimpled and unshaven face stands out. Collodion is very unforgiving, and this is something I love. It is a direct move away from the current-day Photoshopped images of perfection. To sum up, I look to educate as well as to capture the subject as they truly are.
Lastly, when working with this process, the idea of a unique and non-reproducible piece of photographic art should begin to excite any of us photographers. This is slightly reduced when working with glass or ambrotype, as it allows for prints to be made. But nonetheless, there will never be another piece of glass or aluminum that contains that exact pattern of metallic silver. This uniqueness speaks to the direction of this art as I see it and helps to encourage thought, consideration and desire in a one-of-a-kind piece.
What are the challenges involved in wet plate photography? How does this process differ from traditional digital and analog processes?
Ha! The challenges…
1.) Blowing up your home.
2.) Accidently poisoning your family or yourself.
3.) You must be meticulous about everything as it all matters. Think of it more akin to baking than cooking, but don’t ever mess up! However, you will, and mistakes will be expensive. This is a field where you learn fast because you can’t afford to keep failing. Or you blow yourself up … and then stop working.
4.) Investing large sums of money into chemicals with no promise of success. This is not like buying a film camera where Ilford or Kodak has perfected the process and created easy methods for you. You do all the work and that often leaves room for small errors that may cause your image to not develop.
5.) You only have an 8 minute window from pour-exposure-develop. This means you must have a portable darkroom nearby…like feet away. Gone are the days of grabbing your Hasselblad and throwing in some Porta800 to head out the door. Every shot is considered—often days or weeks in advance.
6.) Having a subject sit still for the time period needed. Collodion is weakly sensitive to visible light. Primarily it is sensitive to UV light. This means it roughly has an ISO of 1-5. So often you open up wide and shoot between 1-3 seconds. Want to close that aperture to capture scenic? Expect minute-long exposures. Of course, the 8 minute window before the collodion and pores dry up limits your overall exposure. Want to capture a starry night? Forget about it.
In what ways do you find wet plate photography useful?
Slow down, world. Give thought to your composition. Consider your exposure and choices. You only get one shot with this method and often it requires 30 minutes of work per image. You’ve just spent 4 months mixing chemicals and waiting for the right moment; slow down, think and then shoot. Wet Plate is useful as a tool to slow us down and think things out. If you could only take 6 images at a 3 hour photo-shoot, how would that change you?
The second and equally important way it has been useful is the continued education it has given to this art I love. Every image captured helps to remind me and teach me more about how to capture light. Did I pour my ferrous sulfate solution directly into one portion of my plate and thus removing the silver nitrate and causing holes in my image? Is my contrast weak because my Sodium Thiosulfate Fixer solution is too diluted with distilled water from my developer wash, and thus not removing the unexposed silver nitrate, which provides my blacks? With understanding, the image is yours to learn from and will clearly communicate your mistakes.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
A camera is a tool—a box, with some kind of opening that allows a certain framing of light in for a set time period. Then what is truly capturing the light? Wet Plate photographers utilize cameras of all different sizes as a means to a certain end, but we must have our feet on both sides of the field. On one is the vision, the eye, the framing, the composition, and the final product; and on the other is the realm of creating a chemically reactive material. We are both the creators of film and the capturers of light.
Georgia native, Chase Norton attended Emory University for his undergraduate degree in Environmental Science. Moving to Hawaii in his early twenties he earned a Masters Degree in Meteorology at University of Hawaii. Embracing the beauty of scenic Hawaii through backpacking, he discovered his passion for photography while adventuring in the mountains. Chase spent the last 2 years working as studio manager at Hawkins Biggins Photography handling the post processing side of the business. Over the years, he has enjoyed helping and teaching others the powerful organizational and processing tools in Adobe Lightroom both in classrooms and privately. In his free time, Chase enjoys photographing remote regions of Hawaii and embracing the road of adventure.