Wet-collodion (or wet-plate) negative
(1851 to early 1880s)
Published by Frederick Scott Archer in 1851, the wet-collodion process was faster (that is, more sensitive to light) than the calotype, and enabled photographers to produce negatives on a glass rather than paper base, free from the grainy texture of paper negatives. Collodion – a mixture of commercially available gun cotton dissolved in ether or alcohol with iodide salts added – was a tensile, syrupy substance. This was applied evenly to a glass plate, which was then sensitized in a silver-nitrate bath. The sensitized plate was exposed in the camera, while damp, and developed before fully dry.
Despite its obvious disadvantages – it was a very fiddle process and required a darkroom wherever the photograph was made – the collodion plate produced images capable of rendering great detail and a long tonal range, and quickly supplanted the calotype and the daguerrotype. A variant of the wet-collodion method, the dry-collodion plate, was even trickier to useso never became widely popular. ‘Dry’ photography became feasible only with the introduction of the dry plate in 1871.
The wet-collodion method is still used today by artists such as Sally Mann and others, among whom Joni Sternbach, a recent discovery for me. In fact, I should thank Flak Photo for sending the daily email with one of Sternbach’s photographs from the Surfers series.
The series is impressive. The photographs seem taken last century and the contemporary subjects emerge from a fictitious past to question us about permanency and time. The images also evoke a strong feeling of connection with the boundary between the land and the sea, an ever-changing locus where the surfers weave transitory relationships with beaches and waves.
At times the photographs exude a rawness, an energy that comes both from the landscape and the subjects, as if that was the instant before they turned into wholly marine creatures and disappeared.
Add to this the eerie and unavoidable effect of the wet-plate collodion technique, that forces the viewer to perceive the image as a relic, a testimony of a time that is gone and will pass.