The Dry Plate Workshop
Back at the end of April when I booked on to the Dry Plate Workshop at Street Level Photoworks in Glasgow, it was as a result of a spur of the moment decision in response to a Facebook link posted by a friend a couple of days before the course began. It caught my interest and with nothing else planned it seemed like a fun way to spend my weekend.
So on Saturday 30th April I turned up and met my classmates Arpita, James and Oonagh. Two other would-be attendees had cancelled so the four of us benefitted from even more of workshop leader Debbie’s attention.
Debbie introduced the weekend by telling us about her background and experience with dry plate negatives before we got hands-on. She led us through a full day of preparing, subbing and finally coating glass plates with liquid emulsion which we left to dry in the darkroom overnight. On the Sunday our plates were ready for use. We spent the day between darkroom and studio, initially assessing the sensitivity of our plates to establish exposure times and then photographing each other with 5×4 large format cameras. We finished the day developing our plates and they were left rinsing to be subsequently dried by Street Level staff and posted out to us a few days later.
Decision and consequence
To simply say that I had nothing else planned for the weekend as a reason for signing up is a bit glib. The dry plate process interested me as one that I might be able to follow up at home and make use of with my pinhole cameras and perhaps the Intrepid, the arrival of which is imminent. The workshop didn’t disappoint and there was the bonus of being introduced to the wealth of experience and varied knowledge of my classmates. At the end of it I had a decision to make and as with any decision, there would be a consequence.
I could have gone home, waited for the plates that I’d exposed to be sent to me and simply kept them as souvenirs of an enjoyable weekend that extended my knowledge of photography. End of story. Or, I could have taken what I had learned, kept in touch with my new friends and set out on a new adventure of recreating and experimenting with, the processes to which I had been introduced.
I chose the latter. I already make at least some of my own pinhole cameras and process my own film and paper to create images. The workshop showed me it’s only a small extra step to make my own sensitised media in the form of coated dry glass plates too. Not just that but my eyes have been opened to the possibilities of using liquid emulsion in various other ways. I would only need to gather a few bits’n’pieces of kit and figure out how to fit it all in to available space and time. What could be simpler?
First off I bought a book on Amazon: Silver Gelatin – A user’s guide to liquid photographic emulsions by Martin Reed & Sarah Jones. It’s a comprehensive manual and an inspiring book that both reinforced much of the coursework and offered alternatives to some of the processes we had been shown. In particular, the book suggests less risky ways of cleaning and keying the glass than the etch process we used. While acknowledging that etching is probably the most archivally sound of the methods available it is one I’d rather avoid if possible.
I ordered from Silverprint, SE1 emulsion and the gelatin and chrome alum that are mixed together to make Subbing and Hardening solution. A search on eBay came up trumps for a job lot of the 5×4 holders that would be needed to load the plates in a large format camera and I was able to share some of these with my classmates. It was a real surprise to receive from Oonagh the gift of The Countess, a sixteenth-plate camera and James provided a batch of thin glass slides that I could cut to size and prepare for use in it. I have some picture frame glass that can be cut and prepared for use in the 5×4 plate holders for the Intrepid when it arrives. All I need is a diamond tipped cutter, readily available on eBay, and I’ll be good to go!
So I have or soon will have, all the equipment I need to prepare plates and expose them in cameras. I just need to prepare the plates. The preparation of the glass is straightforward and doesn’t need a darkroom, just a wooden rack to set them on (eBay again) while they dry. The glass has to be cut to size, cleaned of any surface treatments that would inhibit adhesion of the emulsion and then coated with subbing and hardening solution. Once dry these can be taken into the darkroom to pour or brush on the emulsion. To make efficient use of materials I’ll need to prepare plates in batches.
It’s this last stage that gives me a problem: Once coated, the plates will have to be laid out flat and kept in the dark until the emulsion has dried before they can be packed in light tight bags just like regular sheet film. This takes several hours but my darkroom is of a temporary nature, a small shower room blacked out for the purpose. I need a way to store the coated plates while they dry. After some thought I returned to eBay and found a small office filing unit with five shallow drawers that will fit on my temporary darkroom worktop. Each drawer will hold six or possibly more 5×4 plates giving a batch capacity of at least thirty. The drawer fronts will be easily covered with a dark cloth to prevent light from entering and the unit should be relatively easy to move.
Emulsion, once prepared for use, has to be kept at a fairly steady temperature of around 40ºC for pouring. This is normally achieved by water bathing. I think Oonagh plans to experiment with a small slow cooker to establish how effective a water bath it could provide. I await her results with interest.
With just a couple of eBay purchases still to arrive, I’m living with the consquences of my decisions and am almost ready to take the next step in preparing my own dry glass plates. Now to set aside a weekend for the fun to