ChromaticSoul :: The Blog

Collodion Soldiers

Posted on: 9 August 2007

So what is a collodion process? Also called wet-plate collodion process, it was invented in 1851 and is known as such because the images are made on glass and wet metal plates. It was abandoned in the 1880s when dry plates were invented. It is somewhat dangerous as collodion is a solution of nitrocellulose in ether or acetone, sometimes with the addition of alcohols. Its generic name is pyroxylin solution. It is toxic and highly flammable. As the solvent evaporates, it dries to a celluloid-like film. The process of developing with collodion is somewhat involved:

  • Clean the glass plate (extremely well)
  • Flow the glass plate with “salted” (iodide/bromide) Collodion
  • Immerse the plate in a silver nitrate bath (for 3-5 minutes)
  • Exposing the plate (can range from less than a second to several minutes)
  • Develop the plate (using an iron based developer)
  • Fix the plate (with potassium cyanide or sodium thiosulfate)
  • Varnish the plate (with a varnish made from gum sandarac, alcohol and lavender oil) (via wikipedia)

All of this is done in a matter of minutes.

So if it was abandoned, why would anyone want to go back to this dangerous and time-consuming process?

[Photographer Ellen] Susan describes the technique as a labor of love. “Though the process is arduous, incredibly messy, expensive, hazardous, and the results can be unpredictable, it’s more enjoyable than other methods of photography to me,” she explains. “Being responsible for every aspect of the picture-making process — from cutting and filing the glass, to mixing bulk chemicals, pouring the plate, and final varnish and finish — is a very satisfying experience. When it goes well — which it often doesn’t.” (via PopPhoto)

In her studio in Savannah, Georgia, Susan is shooting a series of portraits of soldiers for an exhibition and book project, as described at “All soldiers who want to be photographed will be,” she says in the site’s casting call. “The only requirements are three and a half hours of your time at my studio in Savannah, and the ability to sit very still for up to 30 seconds. You’ll receive a unique, one-of-a-kind photograph to take with you when you leave.” Many hauntingly solemn portraits, with soldiers’ written comments, appear on the site. (via PopPhoto)

You really should check out the slideshow of these modern day soldiers.


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