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Rediscovering the Magic of Photography

[The group of us at John Coffer’s Farm studying Wet Plate Photography.  I’m on the left in the back…]

I’ve been a professional photographer for around 18 years now.  In that time, I dedicated 6 wonderful years in the U.S. Navy as a photographer.  This is truly where I fell in love with photography as a process and an art.  Back then, it was all film.  Black & white, color, darkrooms, was crusty and dirty, but it was fun!   🙂  The processes were harder to do, but really satisfying when it was done right.  When I was in the darkroom and I saw the image coming up from a print in the developer, it really was magical.

Well, time has marched on and things have gotten simpler and more accessible to the masses.  Digital has come of age and photography has become…truly…easy.  Now, I’m not saying anything about anyone’s talent, or eye, or anything related to their photography being good or bad, I’m just talking about the process.

We’ve come a long way, but there is something to be said for taking the long road, or the road less travelled.  Taking your time and doing things by hand.  I was in search of just such a thing when I visited the farm of John Coffer to learn from him the skills and techniques needed to shoot Wet Plate successfully.

Instagram has proven to society that what it wants is what we once had…what once was.  Borders on images, light leaks, scratches on film, different color temperatures, square formats, polaroids…all of it.  We, as a society, are eating it up.  What we are trying to get is what we once had, but easier, simpler, NOW.   We are living in the very spoiled age of instant gratification.  Anything we want is at our fingertips, to a point that if something takes too much time, it gets discarded and a faster, easier route is looked for.

I found out about wet plate photography and was completely enamored with it.

It’s name, Wet Plate Photography, comes from the fact that you have to put a wet chemical, collodion, on a surface(glass, tin, aluminum).  Then, you have around 10 minutes to shoot and develop that plate(time depends on the heat/environment) before it dries up.  After it dries up, you don’t get an image.  So it’s challenging in the field, but very do-able.  The final result is so unlike any other form of photography.  It’s beautiful.

Each glass negative, ambrotype, or Tintype made takes around 30 minutes or more to make from start to finish.  It slows you down and makes you think about what you’re shooting.

My trip to John Coffer’s farm in the woods was born out of a desire to get back some of the simple joy it is to see the image come up again in front of me, get my hands dirty, and create something from nothing.   I didn’t realize I missed it until I started buying polaroid and film again.  The analog nature of it was giving me something that digital just didn’t.  I didn’t want it, “simple”, anymore.  I wanted to put the magic back into photography.

So what this post covers is my journey to John’s farm and some of the experiences and photos taken during my time taking his class.  What I can say unequivocally  is that is was a profoundly eye opening experience and one that I would like to share.

This is just the first step, the first experience, in what will be an ongoing exploration of this early art of photography.

It all started with a long drive, just me and Delilah(My Zipcar)   😉

Definitely one of the things I miss living in the city…trees, mountains, fresh air, wide open expanses.

At the lodge now…loving the sky.

I‘m off to Coffer’s now.  You know you’re getting close when you hit the dirt roads.  He’s a little bit off the beaten path.

We have arrived.  This is also John’s only form of communication.  He doesn’t have a phone and he’s proud of it.  U.S. Mail all the way… 😉

So This is where it all happens.  The tent in the middle has a darkroom, a sink, and is filled with all kinds of historical cameras, lenses, and old tintypes.  This is where he did most of the teaching, although we shot all over the farm.

This is what John rode around in for 11 years pulled by Oxen at 2 miles an hour.  He was recreating the life of a 19th century photographer.  It’s got a full darkroom inside.  If this thing could talk…

The deep sink for washing and fixing the plates.

This is called a, “Dark Box” and is what you use in the field to develop your plates.  It’s basically a portable darkroom.  I need to build one that can fit in the back of an SUV so I can take this show on the road. 🙂

These are all the chemicals you need to do wet plate.  On the left, in the box is your Silver Nitrate bath.  The yellow liquid is your developer, then the little bottle is Collodion, and lastly, a jug of water to pour on your print to stop developement.

Here’s a few shots of John’s home and some shots of the farm…

This is John fixing the plate he shot of the class.

This is the first portrait I did of John.   It’s also my first plate.  We started out small as it’s easier to get a handle on how to put the collodion on the plate that way.  It’s a 4×5 tintype.  You can click any of the images in this post to see them bigger.

This is me fixing the second plate I did of John.  It was shot on Ruby Glass.

This is the image in the above video that I shot of John.  The Ruby Glass prior to me shooting it(below).

John, shot through the ruby glass filter…teaching away.

In general, the farm is awesome.  As I live in New York City, I need my nature fix to get me balanced.  He’s got many animals on the farm.  Horses, a donkey, cows, bulls, a cat or two…and lots of chickens.  I have come to appreciate how cool chickens are during my time at John’s.  They will just randomly follow you  around the farm.  They’ve just got one thing on their mind…food.

I found out they like Doritos, donuts, pretty much anything that we consider food, they’re good with.

With that in mind, for one of my plates, I decided to dedicate one to, “The Chicken Whisperer”.  See below.  The chicken actually stood pretty still for this…lol.

This is the glass plate negative(clear glass) that I shot and the albumen print  made from that glass plate(below).

Below is the albumen print, “cooking” in the sun.  Very cool process to create your own photographic paper from egg whites(albumen) and silver nitrate.

Here’s the “Chicken Whisperer” getting fixed.  I had thought I was shooting vertically, but I had put the plexi holder in horizontally.  Fortunately, I had framed him up in the center and still got a good image…lol.

So after lots of instruction, we were off shooting what we wanted to on the farm.  I set up a few shots in the woods.  This is the first time I’m getting to use the camera I bought.  It’s an Anthony Climax Imperial Camera, 8×10 camera.  As I have not gotten a tripod for the camera, I used one of John’s wooden benches to get some lower angle shots.

Getting my Luke Skywalker in the swamp moment.

Another little solarization in the bottom right hand corner.   You can see the nice swirly bokeh in the top of the shot.  That comes from the Petzval lens design in the old brass lenses.  This lens is a Voightlander.   I love it as I plan on doing portraits with it and it has a very short depth of field when the bellows is extended.

So John was telling me, when I asked about putting the camera back into the bull’s pasture to be careful as they like to, “investigate” things as a bull had knocked his camera over once before.  Of course, I didn’t listen.  Now, I had to go get the bench, place it, then go back and get the camera.  This  is what I saw when I got back.  They were “investigating” the bench.  It’s a good thing I had not brought the camera out there yet. 😉

My last two plates I shot at the farm were of John and his girlfriend Ann.  I’m very excited by these as I’m looking to do more portraits via glass plate negatives and tintypes.

As we were in his house learning to do albumen prints, I saw him from the side and thought a profile photo would be nice.  You can see the head brace in the shot as well.  I think the exposure here was 4 seconds in open shade.

And one of Ann…

I love both of these.  Ann has such character.  The beauty is in the little details, and also in the  mistakes.  The top left hand corner of John’s did not get processed very well, so when I took it out of the dark box, the sun hit it, then I fixed it, solarizing the corner a little.  The blue line on the right is where the collodion was a little thick and did not quite develop.  So, technically, there are some issues, but that’s also part of the fun.  You never really know how it’s going to turn out until you develop and fix it.

Finally, we get to the Mammoth Plates.  John has a 20×24 camera that we each got to shoot.  It was much more difficult to prepare, shoot and develop.  I was wanting to go big, but I think I’ll be shooting 8×10 for a while.  There’s plenty of time for that later.

This is me pouring collodion onto the mammoth with John’s help.  Not so easy. 😉

Here’s my 20″ x 24″ Mammoth plate image.  So I was going for a little, “Cowboys and Aliens” here.  John was a good sport to put on the glasses, grab one of his vintage guns, and get into the act. 😉

At the end of the day, we all gathered around the fire and cooked up some brats, had a beer, and relaxed.  It’s a lot of work carrying around those cameras, tripod(or bench in my case), setting up the shot, getting the plates poured…going to shoot it…going back to develop it.  Finding out it’s not right, and doing it all over again. Then finally, Fixing it, washing it, drying it, and varnishing it.  It really is great fun and I’m already planning my future shoots.

Thanks for reading.  I hope you enjoyed this look into my first experience shooting Wet Plate Photography.

Now where’s that DSLR of mine…gotta go make some money to pay for all the chemistry and materials now!   😉

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New Water Still Life

I’ve started a new project based around Still Life and Fragrance specifically. While in this project, I’m not necessarily shooting the bottles for the brand, I’m exploring creatively what I can do with light, shadow, and sets to create unique visuals that showcase the beauty of the bottles in those environments.

Usually, the fragrance bottle gets shot on white or black and then cut out and put on some lifestyle image that represents what the brand is going for. Photographically and creatively, I think this approach falls short. This works and does convey the brand’s message, but I feel that they spend so much time and money creating these beautiful bottles for the fragrance, that the photograph of the bottle ends up being an uninspiring secondary visual.

My goal in this project is to find unique ways of shooting and showing off the bottles in an environment either natural or a set built for it. I think that if I let the background show through and let the bottle become a part of it’s evironment, then it will become a more interesting visual that the usual boring cutout…

Gucci’s Flora:
The fun part about Flora is that the bottle has a unique shape and takes on whatever colors you put behind it. For a subject it’s great as you can really do anything with it. I have an empty 110 gallon fish tank that is not being used right now, so I thought I’d have some fun with water drops. It’s all timing and lighting here. I think it took about 40 drops before before I got just the right angle and bubbles. You can never go wrong with water and still life. Every shot is unique and can never really be recreated, so you just have to limit the factors that could make for a bad shot and have great timing to catch it.

Marc Jacobs’ Daisy:
I took some artistic license with this one as the bottle has some very unique white flowers on top of the bottle. I knew that if it were backlit, it would create a very dramatic silhouette, while lighting the bottle’s distinctive yellow liquid and branding. Part of creating the look was using a snoot to spotlight just the bottle so that the light dropped off dramatically on the right, silhouetted the rocks and top of the bottle. I left the bubbles on the flowers intentionally as I thought it added something unique to the shot.

More to come…up next Givenchy and Escada’s Ocean Lounge.

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Water Sets…small and large.

(You can click any image below to see a larger version)

I thought I’d pass along a little of how I arrive at deciding to build certain sets. I’m a firm believer that if you think it(and it’s reasonable), anything is possible. The building blocks of this are material cost, space, time, and man(or woman) power. If you have all four, you can create anything your heart desires. Sometimes we have the space and time, people to create, but money becomes an issue. This should never stop creation, it should spur invention… This first set is born of a collaboration between myself and Jersey(stylist/set designer). Jersey and I have always worked well together in creative collaborations. We were given 2 six page spreads and told we had to have certain items in the shoot, but we could shoot it however we liked. I had wanted to do a water/nature shoot for a while, so we sat down and figured out the “how” of it. We had all of the required elements: Space(my studio), $$(relatively inexpensive), time and manpower were at hand as well. So the river/lake edge set was born.
This Project was built in a waterproof 4’x4′ enclosure that I made out of plywood and 2″x4″s. 1/2 of an old aerobed made the waterproofing for this one. It was sacrificed for the good of the project. 🙂Being on 28th St. between 7th and 8th avenue in Manhattan is a HUGE benefit to shooting Still Life. The Flower District is only one street over between 6th and 7th. If there’s a rock, tree, stump, or exotic flower that I need, it’s in one of the shops down the street. We went shopping for 4 different kinds of rocks/shale and a variety of vegetation that would give our set the look of a beautiful water paradise. We shot this over 2 VERY long days. Going from set to set took a while to break down and build up, but we both enjoy the building/creative process, so it was more fun that work. Especially when we saw the results of the work, we were very pleased. This was the one and only “dry” set shot. The look of the Sun in the background, for those interested in technical details were 2 bare bulb Profoto heads firing at full power on their own packs. I used this a few times during the shoot to simulate daylight shining through the vegetation. There were some outtakes and things we tried, but ultimately got left on the cutting room floor. I had this idea that dry ice would make for a bog-like place(think Empire Strikes Back with Yoda). Unfortunately, the dry ice just didn’t work in well with the other sets to make the story Gel together. Trust me…I’ll find a use for the dry ice yet. 🙂 Sooo…it got cut. But dry ice IS fun. 🙂

That’s me having fun with the dry ice. Very Yoda in Empire Strikes Back, No? Jersey working on jewelry placement.

The final result…with raindrops added by spashing from the sides and a high shutter speed to capture the “stop action”.

So I was thinking about what we accomplished with a 4’x4′ water set in studio… What if I could create a larger set with more water? Could I do a fashion shoot with men or women? The answer is an unequivocal YES. 🙂

For the next set…

Zink Magazine was doing their first Men’s Issue scheduled for publication in April of 2009(shot in Dec 2008). I thought this was the PERFECT time to try out my “human” water set theory. The product set above got me to thinking that it was possible to do this larger set in studio. It was December and really cold, so doing anything outside on the roof was completely out of the question. In Studio was the only way…I went to the hardware store and bought enough 2″x6″ boards to creat a 12’x12′ enclosure. I made sure that they had enough screws in them during construction that they would not break under the pressure of about 400 gallons of water that would eventually be in the enclosure. Then Costco comes into play with the 2 – 20’x20′ waterproof tarps that I used to waterproof the enclosure. I really had NO idea prior to doing this shoot whether the tarps would be completely waterproof. The box said water resistant. wow…this could be REALLY BAD. I was fairly sure that it was, but only found out after the fact that it worked perfectly…lol. No worries…everything was fine. 🙂 I have to say that Jonathan, our model, was a trooper throughout the whole thing. Even with keeping the studio very warm in the air, it’s impossible to make 400 gallons of water warm. The first 30 or so was hot, and then it was just a losing battle. So Jonathan had to get brave the cold every outfit. It didn’t help that everyone was spashing cold water on him to give the shot movement. Other artists on set:
Kim Baker: Grooming
Roy Fire: Wardrobe Stylist
Vincent: Splasher, Art Direction.

Back to the set for a minute…here’s a shot of the set once I put up the background for the left photo(above). We could get most of the clothes wet, but there were some that we couldn’t, thus, I shot it within the set below. So that was the Zink shoot… The last water set is Very Small. I was shooting Diamond earbud covers for the classic white IPOD headphones. These were made out of pink diamonds and retailed for around $50,000. What celebrity wouldn’t want them?? 😉 This was shot in a little bowl, maybe 1/2 inch of water. I used some wax to keep them upright(standard for jewelry shoots). To get the movement of the water, I used a fan blowing softly. That’s all for now….

I have some more projects in the works that I’ll share when completed. You can see more of my work at:

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