Perfume Story: February 2012 Archives

February 2012 Archives

Wet Plate Photography Collodion Process -part 1

Do you know about wet plate photography?

image120220_01.pngFirst, take a look at the picture on the left. This was taken for an afficianado of wet plate photography who lives in New York and the clothing is that of someone living during the American Civil War. The wet plate collodion photography process was the photography technique that was popular during that time period.
Wet plate photography was invented by Frederick Scott Archer in England in 1851.
The technique involves soaking a colorless, transparent glass plate to which iodized collodion has been applied in a silver nitrate solution, exposing the plate while still wet, developing in ferrous sulfite, and fixing in potassium cyanide to finish the image.
In other words, it is necessary to wet the glass plate right before recording the image and then develop it before it dries so this technique disappeared from the market when dry photographic plates made an appearance. Moreover, this technique requires effort, time, and equipment to make a photograph, so it is a completely different world for those of us who have become used to digital photograph today. Additionally, the technique was too expensive, so it has been long forgotten.
However, I had heard that there were still some wet plate photography practitioners, although they are few in number, and I became interested when I was shown wet plate photographs by one wet plate photography enthusiast who lives in NY, so I visited John Coffer, who is a pioneer in this field.

(General Clark and Family. Photo by Del Hibert)

John Coffer, wet plate photographer

At the end of November 2011, I headed toward a rural area of the state of New York, close to the border with Canada. My purpose was to get to John Coffer's property.
I stayed in a motel by the side of the road the night before the appointment, ate breakfast at a local restaurant, and arrived at John's place just after 9 a.m.

Standing in front of the simple timber gate, I saw boots placed where several thick pieces of wood were lined up on the ground under the gate. It seemed that the boots were there to change into because one couldn't walk in regular shoes as the ground was wet and muddy, perhaps from rain a few days before.

image120220_02.pngHowever, it was difficult to get them on when standing on the boards with no railing. Seeing me having trouble, John motioned for me to lean over and hold his shoulders and by doing so, I was finally able to get the boots on. It was difficult to walk even with the boots on and after walking along with no path in front of us, we arrived in front of a hut. The hut, which was clearly built with his own hands, was entirely of logs. We entered the hut with our dirty boots still on and my first impression upon meeting John was that of a hermit. He had kind eyes. The eyes peering through his spectacles were gentle. Eyes are an expression of our past life experiences.

John purchased this land when he was 26. That was 1978, so I calculated his current age as 59 years old.
The property included 50 acres, which is quite extensive. He bought it cheap from a winery. Now it would probably be worth a lot of money.

image120220_03.png image120220_04.png

John was eating his breakfast of pancakes in the hut. They were covered with butter and syrup. He had obtained the syrup from his maple trees. He also makes his own maple and sorghum sugar and milks his own cows. He has a large device for boiling down his syrup. He has various bottles and cans on top of what appears to be a desk and he eats on the remaining minimal space. His only dish is a frying pan. He leads a completely self-sufficient lifestyle here.
image120220_05.png image120220_06.png

John told me the following.
After living in Florida for five or six years, he roamed around the U.S. for seven years until 1978, when he was 26.
He traveled alone in a buggy, like those used by those of the Amish faith.
He had no money and traveled hungry, living a lifestyle of the bare minimum. He lived on only two thousand dollars a year. That was only his food expenses. His horse feed was the grass that grew on the side of the road, with occasional offers of feed on city roads and offers of meals and showers along the way, so he worked taking portrait photographs as he travelled to earn money for expenses and as he somehow continued his exploration, he discovered wet plate photography while investigating history, old things, and old technologies.

The purpose of his travels was a kind of training and he was searching for something to be his starting point to figure out who he was, but in the process of determining if he truly is a photographer, he stumbled onto the wet plate process.

Investigating further, he learned that there was a wet plate photography museum in 1946 and there were a few wet plate photographers still around, but he did not know any more about the actual situation other than no one else was doing it at that time.

He went to the Smithsonian Museum as well, but the curator did not know either and contacted his boss, who helped by investigating the history of photographs. This was around 1976.
He finally learned the method and became inspired to try it and since that point, he has continued to study it.
His trip roaming across the U.S. is described on his homepage. A nearby college student created the webpage for him, and looking closely at the desk in the corner, I saw that he has a computer. Despite his self-sufficient lifestyle, he has a computer.
This made sense. It is because of this computer that he became known as a wet plate photographer. Even though he has a self-sufficient lifestyle, information transmission uses digital equipment. John became known due to that.

His current activity is a once-a-year Jamboree, which is a gathering of wet plate photographers and which is held on his property. Participation is free. However, meals and tents are to be brought by the participant.
There are two galleries in New York and one in Santa Fe that carry his work, as well as one other locations, where his work can be critically evaluated.

He also holds workshops. There are applications from all over the world to attend. Applications from the U.S. are a given, but there have also been applications from Australia, Saudi Arabia, Norway, Sweden, and Korea. There have not been any from Japan yet. There are now 1000 enthusiasts throughout the world thanks to his workshops.

(to be continued)

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