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Sunday, October 11, 2009

A rose, by any other name, might be mistaken for something else entirely

  I spent part of this morning searching for a recipe that would modify the color of some of my wet collodion (1850s photographic process) images. I'm doing some work to show in a gallery (more on that when the event is scheduled), and since the gallerist likes a certain, old-school look, I am testing different recipes to better accommodate him. I was advised to seek out developer recipes using potassium nitrate.

Back in the day, potassium nitrate was called other things. I knew the names saltpeter, saltpetre, nitrate of potash, and nitrate of potassium, and I searched using all of those, but I couldn't find what I needed. It turned out that I already had reviewed part of the book containing the recipe, but I hadn't looked in the right place: I should have been searching for "nitrate of potassa."

Remind me to take up more sensible hobbies.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)9:35 PM

Monday, June 29, 2009

Large format homemade camera version 1.0

  homemade camera, main body by A.E. Graves
[Image: homemade camera, main body]

If you know me, you know that I am wandering around with huge lists of creative projects I am eager to complete. I try not to carry the actual lists with me, in hopes that I'll forget some of the new project ideas and so can keep the lists closer to realistic (whatever that is), but this strategy generally doesn't work. Right now, my to-do list has additional projects for the Getty Conservation Institute (including a repeat of my first submission on a different paper), THREE photo books to layout, contests to enter, articles to write for, tests to perform on a Polaroid camera I just acquired through eBay, modifications to same involving Fresnel lenses... Until recently, the number one item was building my own large format camera.

But recently, I crossed that one off the list. Because I did it.

I've mentioned in the past that I've got several wet plate collodion projects in the works. I ordinarily rent a specialized package of equipment (including a LF camera), chemistry, and a darkroom to shoot my work. For reasons which I don't completely understand, it hasn't been possible for me to get into the rental studio to get my work done. It hasn't been available; one chemical or another has been lacking; an attendant had a scheduling conflict, and couldn't prepare something for me; the booking went awry.... Obstacle after obstacle. And during this long waiting period, I thought about the ways that the rental program is GREAT... but that it doesn't really give me control over anything, including adjustments to the chemistry I might want to make.

homemade camera with sliding box extension, by A.E. Graves [Image: homemade camera with sliding box extension in use.]

Of course, I would love to have total control. And this led me to think about getting set up to do this sort of work at home. There was one big obstacle, and that is that I am faced with a request for large-format collodion plates, and I did not have a large format camera. The new LF cameras I was looking at looked like they would cost me about $6,000. I searched the couch for change, but didn't come up with enough to spring for one of those.

I have some great books on camera-building, which were quite inspirational. I decided to use my limited understanding of optics to build one by myself.

If you are a gear-head, you may be scoffing right now, laughing at the idea of me building the chunky DSLR that's hanging around your neck right now. Obviously I wouldn't spend my time replicating that. (I don't intend to spend weeks of my life adjusting the white balance of the output. I mean, c'mon.) But semi-permanent photography has been around since the 1840s, and between then and now, there have been many effective, simple cameras.

Cameras are, at their simplest, a box with a lens on one side, and something photosensitive tucked away inside opposite the lens, waiting to be exposed to light focused by the lens. The lens or the box needs to be able to keep light out when not in use, and sometimes the lens needs to squint. For the slow emulsions I use - think ASA 3 - the exposure can be handled by me walking over and removing the lens cap manually for the duration of the exposure, and then putting it back on at the end.

subject and positive print made with homemade camera, by A.E. Graves [Image: sample in-camera positive print beside the subject. The ratio is approximately one to one.]

Without boring you to tears, I'll describe what I did briefly:

-I went onto eBay and bought a "process lens," which is a lens optimized for one-to-one duplication.

-I took the manufacturer's estimated focal length for the lens, and built a box approximately as long as that focal length, and as wide and tall as some 8" x 10" film holders I'd previously bought on eBay, and mounted the lens to one end.

-On the other end, I made a translucent screen using a thick, vellum-like tracing paper. This is a focusing screen, and is also the film plane, where the photo paper or plate will rest. I used this right away to test the design, and immediately got an image on the screen!!!

-I built a long box of slightly smaller diameter that barely fits inside the main box. This box can slide in and out, performing the same functions as bellows on an LF camera. (I got this idea from a clever book called Primitive Photography, which I'll write about elsewhere. I executed it differently from the book.) I can explain what bellows do, but I don't want you to fall asleep.

-I bought some photo paper which (a) makes positive images when developed, and (b) has about the same speed as sensitized collodion, so that I could practice with this paper first, and establish baselines for exposure and focus. (I'll write about this paper at once I've tested it more extensively.)

-I tested the camera, and got great images!!

There are some refinements I need to make to the design to make it operate better, including an improved focusing screen, and better sliding box movement in moist weather. But I think I can manage those improvements, and get this simple camera operable for wet plates. Perhaps even by the holiday weekend!

I'm positively giddy over making this camera. My success is making my project list longer, of course, because now that I know I can build an 8 x 10 camera, I realize I could build all sorts of other special purpose cameras, including panoramic cameras, 4 x 5 cameras, any number of simpler lens cameras, and perhaps some twin lens reflexes...

The next item on my list is getting a collodion studio set up at home, which is something of an ordeal. And after that, plate making at home. I expect to achieve both of these goals in July. I'll report back, and will also post a link here when I write my review of the positive paper.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)12:08 AM

Thursday, January 17, 2008


The smell of lavender.

My home currently smells of sandarac varnish. Which contains oil of lavender.

Which is so pleasant.


posted by Arlene (Beth)9:27 PM

Saturday, January 12, 2008

  There really is no visual standard for monitors, is there? I'm making adjustments to my wet plate collodion galleries over at, which look really good on the two monitors I test here at home, but which aren't legible on the monitors we have at work. Which means they probably aren't legible on many monitors, which is a shame. So I'm tinkering.


posted by Arlene (Beth)4:39 PM

Monday, December 10, 2007


NyQuil on my pillow makes me happy; NyQuil in my eyes, it makes me cry...

I have been remarkably ill for about ten days. I can't remember the last time I was this ill. Though my lack of a clear memory could just be the medication...

I am so ill, I am at a point where I would happily go in and see a doctor and beg for digestion-destroying antibiotics, if only I had a general practitioner (or even a medical history at my hospital's internal medicine department) that would see me. Alas and alack, while I have a doctor specializing in uniquely female anatomy and a surgeon, I don't have a generalist. And I haven't been willing to beg: I know that first-time appointments are very thorough, nearly impossible to schedule, etc. etc. etc.

Ah, privatized medicine. How glorious it is.


Somehow, I don't look as bad as the fruit they are trying to pass off as tomatoes at my local greengrocer. What odd, pink eggs those are. I don't know what laid them, but I do not believe they were grown within a thousand miles of here.


wet collodion on aluminum print of saxophone detailDuring my medicine induced daze, I wrote a couple of items which didn't belong here, or anywhere else in particular. They now have their own pages. They are a list of things I have in common with my Cousin, Ollie, which is reasonably self-explanatory, and The horsewomen of the apolocalypse wear low-rise jeans, in which I rant about clothes. (I'm going to pretend that the DayQuil is what made me go on a nutritional rant today against a few of my fad-dieter co-workers, but that's a story for another day.) Do not believe that this new segregation of non-food topics to other pages will continue! Though it might, now and then, when the mood strikes.

I also finally got around to scanning some of my ferrotypes. I can't claim that the web really makes them look the way they actually are. There's something about the light of the scanner within the varnish on the surface that changes the way they look significantly, and I spend too much time trying to remove the odd, bluish glow that they get under scanner light. (I'm starting to figure out how to do that: on my monitor here at home, they are beginning to resemble themselves.)

I'm posting two galleries of experiments, and will update the rest of to reflect the new work soon. I've posted a sample of one of the galleries in the past: it is protea, and the latest is blow, which are details from musical instruments, objects which I would like to photograph in many different ways, but am just beginning to examine. The images are made the way tintypes were back in the Civil War. Each print is hand-poured, exposed in camera, and then developed before the sensitizer can dry. Each is one of a kind - there is no negative, it is more like an instant metal positive. (I'll wind up explaining that in more detail on my photography site.) I'm still getting the swing of this: I will make "brighter" images in the future also, but like to wallow in the poppy contrast of these prints.

They are odd-looking images, and when they first dry, they are very obviously 3-D, with the light part of the image raised where the silver reacted. I love these plates. I think of their odd appearance as a benefit: no one mistakes these images for a view of the subject of the photo, they way my friends do when I show them a sunset or a flower, and all of their comments are about the quality of the sunset/flower, rather than the qualities of the picture as an abstracted representation of the sunset/flower. These plates are so obviously something else...

More on this when I am healthy. Which I hope will be very soon.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)8:25 PM

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