Art: Rediscovering wet plate photography

Artists use old technique in new exhibit

Wet plate photography — sounds messy, doesn’t it? It’s what photographers used in the 19th century until someone discovered the chemical mix that led to the new and improved dry plate.

The heyday of the wet plate (also known as the collodion process) fell between 1851-75. Photographers, using large-format cameras, coated a glass or metal plate with a light-sensitive emulsion, “took” the photograph (exposed it to light to capture the image), then developed the negative. The plate had to stay wet the entire time.

There is a laundry list of disadvantages, the most obvious being its wetness. The photographer has to work fast, all while trying not to drip an emulsion made up of chemicals like silver nitrate and acid.

So why would any modern artist want to work in this troublesome, antiquated process? It’s the challenge, the chance to work creative muscles.

“Wet plate collodion is enjoying a big resurgence now,” explains gallery owner Paul Paletti. “It is something of a reaction to digital photography that many photographers are seeking out historic processes for their unique aesthetic, in spite of the tremendous difficulties in utilizing such processes. It also ties them to the history of the medium, helping them understand how the pioneers of photography worked.”

Paletti is showing works by contemporary photographers Bill Schwab and Paul Taylor in “Wet Plate.” The exhibition is one of the last remaining participants of the Louisville Visual Arts Festival/Glass Art Society (GAS) conference’s “Glass 30 — Four Weeks of Fire.” Since GAS highlighted glass art, this glass negative show fit in well. Yet it also stands alone as an example of vintage photographic methodology.

Schwab specializes in still-lifes, cityscapes and nature scenes. Some of his images were created using black glass ambrotype, a variation of wet plate (others are collodion on aluminum). The glass negative is finished with a dark coating to make a positive image. You can tell it’s on glass; the plate is visible, with nothing between the viewer and the photograph.

No matter how contemporary the subject, the resulting images look vintage, dreamy and somewhat spooky. His “Rose Garden Gates” could be the passageway to either heaven or hell. “Reflections,” with shadowy trees in water, is almost unidentifiable.

Taylor’s technique enables more prominent details. He used collodion on glass for his “Connecticut River Landscape” (also known as “Untitled #17”), an image from his series focusing on the woods that frame the banks of the river.

But it is his series from Cappadocia, Turkey, that mesmerizes, with its mountainous terrain and rock-cut structures.

Look closely at “Ortahisar I” and you’ll see plants on the decks, satellite dishes and chairs near shelters carved from the volcanic rock, largely used today for storage of local fruits and vegetables. “Uzengi Valley II” features what looks like windows dotting the terrain. They are actually pigeon cotes, small holes carved in the mountain.

To get these photographs, Taylor had to lug a large wet plate camera over what has been described as a moonlike landscape. This brings us back to the question: Why go to all the trouble? Paletti says, “The reward is in the production of unique, hand-crafted images with a particular aesthetic that cannot be achieved in any other way.”

‘Wet Plate’
Through Aug. 31
Paul Paletti Gallery
713 E. Market St. • 589-9254