Michael Bartolotta, Art Director of William and Mary Alumni Magazine and Nineteenth Century photographer, spent a day taking historic photos of Brother Eric ‘03, as a part of an Alumni Magazine article. Michael, said, “As far as the process itself, it’s called ‘wet plate collodion’ and I will be making in camera Ferrotypes which are images on tin (tintypes) or aluminum, as well as ambrotypes which are images on glass.’ While onsite, Michael, sweated and hand-labored in photography all day, ‘harder and longer than most any day easily remembered, yet emerged with some of the best shots ever taken.’
Emerge is an appropriate word, since the actual images and characters seemed to appear on the plate in ghostly fashion, mysteriously, magically, almost reverentially long ago. The closest thing one can associate this magic to is the transformative power of watching cooked sugar globs hand spun into white, pearlescent candy braids. One is reminded of the mystical and captivating pastime of watching a hearth fire.
Michael set up a ‘chemical bath’ area, safely roped off from customers, while using silver nitrate and other homemade colloid solutions to produce the images. According to Michael, a slight wind or even high humidity can drastically affect the results, causing unseemly ‘oyster shell’ marks, white streaks and unwanted clouds to form over the intended subject. The weather that day was picture perfection!
Additionally, timing and sunlight are critical. As the Earth turns, light is ever fickle. This historic process has best results outside with natural sunlight. This may be why most photographs prior to 1880 are outdoor scenes. Michael, ever the craftsman, was at some points running to develop the shots. Unlike digital photography which can capture an infinity of moments in rapid succession, these photos required the sitters to hold poses, of four, five, and six long seconds. Zero movement is allowed, as if time were suddenly longer, paused in a practiced breathing exercise. It was living history for us, and a challenge at that! The real fear of Ryan’s blinking or Eric’s meandering mustache made us very aware of our habitual selves in this ‘Prime of Times’.
Brother Ryan said of the event: “In all the years of my re-enacting historical events, I have never felt the experience of stepping back in time so viscerally. I gasped as our ghostly figures materialized from the watery collodion, recognizing the familiar faces as our own, but somehow strange relatives from another epoch…”
Although the images can be digitized, the original ambrotype or ferrotype is a totally unique and one-of-a-kind glass plate. The Berleys envision using some of these originals for public and private viewing, displayed in tooled leather cases, as was once done. These digitized images will be used for merchandising purposes in postcards, posters and other forms of advertising.
Michael Bartolotta has earned his MFA (Master’s in Fine Arts) in visual studies and this process was the basis of his thesis. If you are interested, please review his personal website http://mdbart.com/wet_plate_1.html