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Local photographers slow down in digital age with return to Civil War-era technique

Photographer uses Civil War-era technique to create lasting art

Commercial photographer Jeff Schotland uses a technique developed in 1851 called wet plate collodion to create images that will last generations. Schotland describes the process as he shoots portraits from his North Kansas City studio.
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Commercial photographer Jeff Schotland uses a technique developed in 1851 called wet plate collodion to create images that will last generations. Schotland describes the process as he shoots portraits from his North Kansas City studio.

A 9-year-old Jeff Schotland stood transfixed as the film negative swirled in the developer solution. Slowly, silhouetted faces began to appear: the curve of an ear, a nose. Then more fully formed details: a freckle, a mole.

“It was like magic. It was the coolest thing I have ever seen,” Schotland said of that first darkroom visit, watching the father of his childhood friend. “I decided then, I was doing this.”

And for more than 40 years, Schotland fulfilled a version of that dream. He put the artsy film portraiture he prefers on the back burner and made a living by mostly doing “nasty commercial” work, lately on digital cameras.

But a few years ago, Schotland wanted to slow down and return to the magic he felt developing film. He was surfing online and saw images made using wet collodion, sometimes referred to as wet plate.

The 19th century process is laborious, but the black and white result is textured and dynamic. The dark blacks, blurry edges and intense detail have sparked an uptick in professional photographers’ interest in the process in a competitive field saturated in Photoshopped digital images.

So Schotland ordered a few books online and took a workshop to learn more.

He estimates that fewer than 7,000 people in the world are experimenting with wet plate, and far fewer are doing it professionally.

In his North Kansas City studio, his cabinets are filled with chemicals, beakers and containers.

He looks and sounds like a mad scientist as he snaps on black latex gloves and goes into the chemical properties of each solution, casually dropping words such as “potassium bromide” and “nitrocellulose” as he works.

“Some of it still goes over my head,” said Earl Richardson, another local wet plate practitioner and friend of Schotland. “Jeff has been my collodion tormentor — he’s my collodion mentor.”

Richardson and Schotland were friends at the University of Kansas and reconnected a few years ago.

Every New Year’s Eve in his Lawrence home, Richardson reflects on the year’s biggest moments — walking his daughter down the aisle, becoming a grandfather, shooting KU’s 2003 near-miss at the national championship.

In recent years, Richardson has made his living photographing college campuses — beautiful university foliage and bright smiles that end up in glossy pamphlets sent to prospective students. It’s repetitive, and by Day 5 he’s running on autopilot. In a week of shooting, he will come home with more than 20,000 images to edit.

Richardson wanted to slow down. He wanted to remember why he got into photography to begin with. In December 2013, he sat in his Lawrence home with “Chemical Pictures: The Wet Plate Collodion Book,” by photographer Quinn Jacobson.

“And I opened the book that New Year’s Eve and thought, this is so complicated. I don’t know if I can do this,” Richardson said. “Then I had a session with Jeff.”

First, Schotland takes a piece of black stained glass (Plexiglas, aluminum and tin are also popular materials). Then he pours on the collodion. Practitioners have to make their own — he uses a mixture of Everclear grain alcohol, dissolved cotton balls, salt and ether.

The collodion’s consistency is like honey, and Schotland slowly tilts the glass plate back and forth, up and down as he pours, willing the mixture into the corners. Then the plate goes into a closed metal container filled with silver nitrate for four minutes. This makes the plate light-sensitive. Then it’s, at most, a 15-minute race to snap the photo before the chemicals dry.

The process requires precision. The wrong mix of chemicals, fingerprints or small pieces of dust can muddy the photo (some people purposefully “dirty” their plates for a rougher look, but Schotland hates that). The exactness required is why many modern practitioners prefer to do wet plate portraits in a controlled indoor environment.

“You think about the people that were out in the Civil War, with a horse carriage, maybe getting shot at; it stuns me that they were able to produce the imagery they were able to produce,” Richardson said.

The process peaked during the Civil War, said April Watson, curator of photography at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Frederick Scott Archer invented it in 1851, and for 30 years it brought photographs into homes of the everyday person.

The Nelson has approximately 1,400 photos made using the wet plate technique.

“I would say there’s definitely been an uptick in interest in the process as a sort of reaction to the digital instantaneity and mass barrage of digital imagery,” Watson said.

It’s the reaction Richardson and Schotland both had — to slow down and return to an older medium.

In his book “The Revenge of Analog,” author David Sax tracks the recent rise in once-antiquated niche markets, such as independent bookstores, vinyl record stores and film photography.

“A niche market can become a mass market; I think that’s something that people can forget,” Sax said in a phone interview from Toronto. “I think we got into this idea that you have to create the next billion dollar app. That’s just not true.”

People are turning away from digital modernity and toward an authentic nostalgia, Sax said. Older photographers want to return to the development process; for young generations it’s the new experience of feeling a piece of film in their hands.

Sax cited Fujifilms’ instant film cameras as the most obvious example in photography: The company sold more than 5 million of them in 2015.

Schotland estimates he has made around $6,000 doing wet plate, not enough to cover his expenses. But for him, and for Richardson, it’s not about the money.

After snapping an image, Schotland gingerly takes the plate back into the cramped darkroom. He drops it into the tray of developer solution, and slowly the black glass transforms: first a silhouetted head with two large ears appears, then a half-smile and deep freckles.

Schotland turns with a smile.

“This is why I do this. Isn’t it just like magic?”

Jacob Gedetsis: 816-234-4416, @jacobgedetsis

Picture this

Earl Richardson’s wet plate photos will be on display at Lawrence’s Percolator art space from July 28 to Aug. 20. For more information visit, lawrence-percolator.blogspot.com. To see more of Richardson’s work check out, earlrichardson.com.

To see more of Jeff Schotland’s photos, visit handmade-photographs.com.

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