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Luther Gerlach Wet Plate Collodion (Off the Grid) Landscape Photography Then and Now

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It seems like 90% of people working in wet plate collodion today shoot portraits, most using artificial lighting. While it is possible to achieve nice results like this, I find the true challenge, and the true beauty, of this process can be best harnessed using natural light, shooting and developing in the landscape. This presents a unique set of obstacles and challenges; for those with the patience and diligence, I think the rewards are well worth it.

“Monument Valley,” 18x22 ambrotype on black glass, 1997, Utah, Luther Gerlach

In the 30 years that wet plate was the predominant photographic process (1850s through 1880s), horse and buggy took the photographers and their darkrooms to exotic locations. Today we can get to the regional national park much faster, but once you are there it is more difficult (if not impossible) to get to the prime locations that the earlier survey crews and photographers were able to access. Back then, there were no park rangers stopping you at every trail. Time and time again I’ve been told, “don’t step off the trail,” “you can’t set up your tripod here,” etc. Every day, the list of “don’ts” get longer. In many ways, I envy those early photographers.

Horse drawn darkroom

Carlton Watkins with assistant, darkroom tent, and equipment

Timothy O’Sullivan’s darkroom enclosure on boat

True, I have a darkroom bus to get me there, but unlike a horse, it can’t get me up a mountain, across a stream, or deep into a canyon. Preservation of our natural treasures has also created obstacles for vehicular traffic, especially for the wet plate collodion photographer, with their traveling darkrooms and onerous equipment and chemistry.

Gerlach’s darkroom bus circa 2017

Gerlach’s darkroom truck circa 2012

Gerlach’s darkroom van circa 2000

This is precisely what I want to address in my upcoming workshop at Photographers Formulary in beautiful Montana. I want to demystify the vagaries of travelling with your darkroom. I want to share what I’ve learned in 30 years of work in historical processes through 2 studio darkrooms, 4 darkroom vehicles, a dozen darkroom enclosures, countless run-ins with park rangers and even local law enforcement, tipped over chemistry, and broken glass plates. Many of the trials and travails that I refer to here, I’ve also read about in the journals of the great Western photographers, such as Timothy O’Sullivan and William Henry Jackson… minus the ambrotype-laden donkey off the edge of the cliff. But we do share the same claim: our best images have been lost to the ravages of “the field.” There’s always the one that got away.

William Henry Jackson with broken ground glass in camera

For this workshop, I’m filling my VW 84 Vanegan to the brim with at least five small view cameras (4x5 to 8x10), one stereo camera shooting 5x8 plates, plate holders for each camera, a dozen lenses, cases for all the glass, two darkroom tents, four silver baths, gallons of chemistry and water, drying racks, glass vices for polishing, a 12x20 camera that I built, and if there’s room, the 22x28 Griffeness wet plate camera that I built. Even with all of this equipment, proper work flow and technical understanding will simplify the whole process into something quite achievable, even for the novice photographer. All you need is desire and perseverance!

LutherG by Nino Rakevich

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