As I’d mentioned in one of my earlier posts, I’ve recently acquired a new 5×7 camera. I’m loving it. The B&W King developing tank was the key to the kingdom when it came to using sheet film. However, in the back of my mind and much of what motivated me to purchase the camera was a desire to delve into, well at least try, dry plate photography.
“Why” you ask? Well, let me tell you why. Because I saw an amazing photograph. Isn’t that how most of this kind of stuff starts. I found myself through a sequence of events I cannot even recall gazing upon a photograph that just rocked my world. It was sublime. I mean, seriously, it was sublime. Through dedicated, persistent, heroic investigation I finally managed to source it and learn a bit about it. Dry plate!! Dry plate?? What the heck? Yeah, that’s what I thought.
So, what’s dry plate? Well, it’s simple really. It’s what there was before emulsions were placed onto substrates which are flexible and rollable…you know, modern film. [NOTE: Check out the George Eastman story on YouTube or Amazon Prime. It’s an incredible story of the man and photography.] Prior to modern roll and sheet film, most things were done on glass or metal. Dry Plate can sort of be viewed as an evolutionary step beyond things like Wet Plate Collodion. Yeah, it’s almost that simple.
Wet plate means working with, well, a wet plate. You pour collodion onto a piece of glass, wet, and you sensitize it in silver nitrate, then place it into a holder, wet, and then you expose it, and then you quickly immediately develop it. The big evolution fundamentally meant that whereas with wet plate where the clock is ticking and you’re dragging a chemistry lab and darkroom everywhere you go, with dry plate, all you needed to carry with you were the dry plates loaded in holders. You could prepare the plates at home. Load them in holders. Head on out and shoot all day. Then, when you got home, cleaned up, relaxed a bit, had some dinner, you could get around to developing them. Very much when all is said and done akin to modern film. Of course, with modern film one of the many major advances was the rollabilty (NOT A WORD. I KNOW) and an ability to get multiple exposures out of your camera as opposed to the shoot, new plate/sheet, shoot, new plate/sheet…repeat…repeat….repeat.
Moving on. I had no clue about how to do dry plate. There wasn’t, isn’t, much out there on it. I guess it’s because there are so many disadvantages to it and it’s not got the WIZZ-BANG, FLASH-BANG, SHAM—um—BANG that all the other Alt processes have. Honestly, the results are sort of inferior versions of modern film in many respects. BUT, unique they can be. Sublime they can be! I know this. I saw it.
There are really two solid articles on the web that I could find on the Dry Plate process. I found some history. But in terms of the “how to” well it’s really these and their both really good.
I ordered the supplies from Bostick & Sullivan, which amounted to photo-grade gelatin and Chrome Allum (a hardener of the gelatin). For the record, as with many other Alt process where you for example size paper for printing, you can use grocery store gelatin such as Knox brand.
These two plus a dash of Kodak Photo-Flo (aids in even distribution of the gelatin) and some distilled water are all you need to “sub” the glass. In other words, create a gelatin layer upon which you’ll then lay on a light sensitive emulsion.
As for the light sensitive emulsion. Well, you can certainly produce your own and I’m sure many, or well some, do. However, I opted for a pre-made emulsion in a box (bottle). The most well known, relatively speaking, of them all is without a doubt Liquid Light. And, true to it’s rather obvious and suggestive name, it’s a liquid emulsion that in theory can be applied to just about anything and then exposed to UV light yielding all kinds of neat artistic outcomes. A superior relative is AG-Plus. It’s superior for reasons I’ll not get into at this point and to be honest have no personal experience or evidence to prove. But hey, it’s what the experts say and it’s what the articles recommend. You can get both of these at freestyle. That’s where I got mine.
So, there it is. That’s it! Well, almost it. There’s the glass.
Straight from Lowes. For a couple bucks, I got a sheet out of which I could cut four 5×7 sheets of glass. I did the cutting myself. Quite simple. But, the glass must be clean. REALLY clean or else you risk the gelatin not adhering. So, you must clean the glass, and clean it well!
Powdered laundry detergent and a green scrubber are what’s called for. The key is that when you’ve removed all the filth and grime, all the oils, water will not bead rather it’ll run off in an even sheet. I tell you, it works and it wasn’t that hard at all.
I got this far over the past weekend. I had a stack of sparkly clean glass neatly wrapped up and resting on a shelf.
Well, tonight I took the next major step. I “subbed” the glass. That’s right. I now have six 5×7 sheets drying; all gelatin coated.
Tomorrow I plan on applying the Ag-Plus and with favorable winds I’ll be out this weekend attempting my first exposure. Of course I’ll then be stepping into my first development efforts as well. Then, [miracle having happened] I will attempt my first Van Dyke contact print and I’ll attempt my first scan of the plates, and then we’ll just see!
I am going to document my efforts here. I’m pretty excited but I am, as with all first attempts, moderating my expectations. Remind me to tell you about my first Bromoil effort. It’s academy award winningly tragic.
Wish me luck. I’ll close with a picture of my holders. Got’em on eBay.
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