The Perfect Imperfections. 5 x 7 tintype I’m three years…
Feast, 2021. 8×10 wet plate collodion tintype.
I captured this tintype of Phoebe Nguyen at the beginning of the year. Phoebe had just graduated from the high school where I work, surviving a Covid-interrupted school year, and I asked her to collaborate with me. I began the process for this series the same way I always do when working with models and other artists – doodling in my journal. Showing them sketches and research allows them a glimpse into my head, so they can understand what “character” they are playing, and appropriate facial expressions and bodily movements.
I include personal notes to myself in my journal, such as potential f-stops, apertures, and lighting to get the look I want. My favourite light for wet plate is natural light, so over the years I have learnt the approximate exposure times for various outdoor conditions. My general starting point is F/5.6 at 1-3 seconds on a cloudy day with my trusty 8 x 10 camera and 300 mm lens (if the bellows are less than 30cm extended). I also keep an eye on the age of my collodion as that can extend my exposure time as well. I use the same large format camera and film holder for every wet plate shoot, as silver nitrate stains everything.
Luckily on the day of January 2, clouds and rain were on the forecast. I planned the shoot for 2pm, the best time of day in my yard for intense UV light (and shorter exposure times).
I set up all the props outside with the help of my trusty assistant Judy Hudson, and prepared my darkroom with collodion, 9% silver nitrate, and trays of fix (sodium thiosulphate), hypo-clear (sodium sulphite), and water. Fresh developer was mixed up the day before the shoot, so the acetic acid had time to settle down. I had made a big batch of Old Reliable Collodion (cadmium bromide & potassium iodide) in February 2020 that was nicely aged with good tones. The large majority of my chemicals and materials are purchased from Gold Street Studios, where I was lucky to learn wet plate photography from Ellie Young and Craig Tuffin in 2017-18.
After Phoebe is dressed and in position, I carefully focus on her eyes, and do any last minute tweaks to the props/set. I set the aperture to F/22, as I want both Phoebe and the dinner plate to be focused. I head into the darkroom to coat the plate with collodion, and sensitise it in the silver nitrate dipper box for 4 minutes. The plate is loaded into a holder, and placed in the back of the camera.
The final exposure was 35 seconds. I had previously shot a plate that day at F/16 and 17 seconds that was around the right mark, so I doubled my exposure time for F/22. I developed the plate for 15 seconds before clearing it with water and placing it in the fixer.
I allowed the plates to dry for several days before coating them with varnish made from lavender oil, gum sandarac, water, and 100% absolute alcohol over heat. We managed to capture eight successful 8 x 10 tintypes over 3 hours, thanks to my wonderful team of Judy Hudson, Phoebe Nyugen, and Tiffany Truong.
In hindsight, this image along with the others in this series, seems to be centred around transition. Phoebe is on the cusp of entering a new stage in life, untethered by formal education. I found out recently the house I am renting will be demolished next year, so even my darkroom is temporary for the moment. My plans are to move everything into a van next year so I can shoot more wet plates on location in the future.
Keira Hudson is a Melbourne-based artist who specialises in alternative photographic processes. She creates artworks with tones of mystery, sexuality, romanticism, and melancholy. Hudson explores the material possibilities of working in photography, using wet plate, film, polaroids, and non-photographic materials to create new combinations. She studied printmaking and photography at RMIT University and has been exhibiting for over 10 years. You can view more of her work at www.keirahudson.com or on Instagram @keirahudsonartist.