Sunday, November 19, 2017

West Coast Trip - Part 1

West Coast Adventure Part 1

  Having not taken Gilli out on the road for a while now I decided to make the first trip be on the short side and just make it up the West Coast and back.   To accompany me on the way up, Ishtar Laguna came down from Washington state.  We met on Facebook in the summer while I was doing a two months long daily tintype sale, so she wanted to take a workshop in collodion from me and then practice her skills while we drive up. She flew down on the 7th and we set out on the road on the 9th.   Gilli-the-Bus was in storage for a while, so I took her to mechanics to have a full checkup, lube and fluids change, but some hiccups were, and I’m afraid may still be, to be expected….

  On the first day we made really good time up through Los Angeles and toward the northern end of that sprawling urban jungle met up for lunch with two great collodion fellas – Brian Cuyler and Jason Mads.  Jason does events and makes excellent plates, he’s also an  avid alternative printer.  Brian actually runs UV Photographics where I get my collodion and other supplies.  He experiments with many formulas and is a true chemical craftsman. I recommend trying one of his formulas like the all-lithium or the new and mysterious UVP-X.  I’m truly sorry not to have taken a group photo of all of us…….

  When we went back to the bus I noticed something odd, the lights in the darkroom were very dim even though we drove for 3hr and the batteries, which I got 2 days ago in San Diego, should have been fully charged…  Hmm…  We drove on headed to Sequoia National Forest and actually got to the area in late evening.  After getting to the campground by Lake Isabella though the extent of the battery problem became evident and it became obvious that we wouldn’t be able to make plates without addressing is first.  Here’s a photo of Gilli in the morning.   It’s actually a rather nice campground, but it was very windy the night before.

  I won’t bore you with the many protracted details of our battery escapades. Suffice to say that we headed to Frezno and wasted an entire day in fruitless pursuit of diagnosis. Toward the very end of the day though we stuck gold in the form of an electrical mechanic by the name of Floyd and Floyd’s story deserves to be told.

  Floyd was born and raised in Frezno and told me that in high school in late 70’s they had half days, so he went only in the afternoon and was looking for a morning job.  He met the owner of the shop, who’s name was still incorporated into the business Floyd was working for now, and demanded to be hired because he would be a good worker. The owner laughed him off because back then Floyd weighed no more than 135 pounds, but Floyd was persistent.   He went to his uncle’s place, fixed up a rotor on an old 59 Chevy pickup, and kept showing up in the mornings and sitting outside the mechanics shop. Eventually Floyd was given a chance and so ever since 1970 he’s been employed at that shop. When I walked in the two other employees were helping other customers, but after a while Floyd emerged from the background and I knew that he of all people would be able to help us.  Technically the business only dealt with sales of batteries, but of course they had testing equipment and after pulling out some machine about the size of a cooler Floyd climbed under Gilli, because full access to batteries is only from underneath (small tangent, changing the old batteries for new ones was one heck of a good time due to that access restriction).  Within a minute Floyd diagnosed the problem and pinpointed to connection we needed changed.  Thank goodness there’s still honest kind mechanics who truly enjoy not only their craft, but good old fashioned customer service.  

  Lighting and all systems were back in order and we headed a bit east to Will Dunniway’s house.  Will is a legend in the collodion and is one of the real renown experts in the field.   He started in 1990 and was doing Civil War and other reenactments for 20+ years , before a series of heart attacks forced him to pull back on the activities.   He still shoots and has an active role in the community.  I met Will a few years ago through a mutual friend.  Back then he was living in Corona, but now he is in the foothills of Sierras, just below Yosemite.  We spent the night at his house and in the morning we talked lenses and collodion.  First time I met Will I noticed a small display case on his wall filled with antique ground glass focusing loupes.  I got my first loupe in 2013 and since then have developed quite an affinity for them. Interestingly enough in the bedroom were I stayed I noticed a vintage Taylor Taylor & Hobson brochure with advertising for the same loupe that was my first.   Here is that page.

   After a delicious breakfast cooked by Will’s wife Frances and a long chat it was time to make some plates. I wanted to make a tintype of Will.  Set up my camera, coated and dipped a plate, posed and focused on my subject, got the plate out of the silver, made the exposure, developed – totally fogged white with no image at all on it.  What’s going on…  I just maintained that silver bath and this is the first time using it. Tried another exposure on a nearby tree – white again.  A strong feeling that it’s the silver bath came over me, so I did the same tree exposure with a different silver bath and got a near-perfect image.  As luck would have it I was at Will Dunniway’s house and so of course there was a fully stocked collodion darkroom in the picturesque wooden shed. Here are Will and Frances in the darkroom.

  Test strips were found and indeed the pH of my bath was not 4 like I thought, but in fact close to 6.  After a few drops of nitric acid and checking and rechecking pH I made another exposure of that tree and got a great plate. Feeling better about the health of my chemistry I again posed Will on a pile of firewood and succeeded in capturing an acceptable image.  Here are the two 4x5 plates.

  We left driving before the sun went down to get to Napa Valley with the intent of shooting the aftermath of Santa Rosa fires in the morning since then it would only be a short drive.   Going west from Will’s place we had to go through a good part of California’s Central Valley starting in Frezno area and cutting northwest.  At one point we had to stop for fuel and that point happened to be the town of Madera. I saw reasonably priced gas station of a reputable brand and pulled it.  Gilli takes about $250 to fill up, so you’re usually at the station a good 20-25min.  This place though had the pumps going at a speed that I have only encountered once before.  The first time I was filling up a car with $20 and it took over 10min, this time we were filling up for one hour and forty minutes! In Russia they say “there is no bad without good”.  If we weren’t there for that long the following surreal episode would not have occurred and the town of Madera would not be mentioned in this blog.
  Ishtar had to use the restroom and in search of one was sent from the gas station to the business across the street, and from there caddy corner to a rather large Mercado (a Mexican supermarket).  When she came back a rather bewildered look was upon her face.  Now, I must note here that Ishtar is from Mexico and speaks fluently, but one of her reasons for coming to US was mastering English and at that she is doing very well.  Inside the store, Ishtar asked an employee if there was a restroom available, but did so in English.  The lady told her no, but then in English asked Ishtar if she was Mexican.  When Ishtar said si, the lady told her were the restroom was and according to Ishtar it was one of the cleanest she’d seen. As the diesel was trickling into the tank we pondered the apparent denial of bodily function rights based on nationality, but then, finally, the prepaid limit on the pump was reached and it was time to head out again.

  We got to the town of Napa rather late at night, found a quiet street to park on and went to sleep.   In the morning we got up early and excited to make some great plates.  Alas that was not to be.  As we were navigating surface streets to the freeway a metallic clunking noise sounded off behind the bus and suddenly the sound of my engine became louder than most Harleys you’ll hear.  That’s a pretty clear sign that something drastic happened within the exhaust system.  I pulled over as soon as I saw a space and peered under the engine.  There was a space that seemed like it should be filled with a large 90-degree pipe and I realized what the clunking noise was.  Running back a few blocks I found a 2ft long metal pipe laying in the middle of the road.  Apparently the bolts on both of these clamps broke and the darn 90-degree connector just fell out. 

  This would not have been a big deal at all otherwise, but this was Sunday, and all auto shops were closed except for big chain retailers and none of them within a reasonable radius had the part.  We tried hard, but to no avail – we had to make what was there work till the morning and spend another night in Napa.  I bought a hose clamp and some bailing wire and temporarily secured the pipe back on there so that when we drove to the hotel we wouldn’t wake up the entire town.  Here’s a picture taken by Ishtar of yours truly in the process of wrapping bailing wire to prevent the hose clamp from possibly slipping off the other clamp it’s holding.  From this angle it actually looks like it should hold…

    In the morning I made a few phone calls and found out that the only place that could help us was literally 2 buildings away from the hotel.  In less than 25min after pulling in there the pipe was back on and we were on the road.

  Santa Rosa fires scorched a very large area and thousands of homes or businesses went up in flames.  I find burned out structured to be visually intriguing, so we stopped at two locations and made some tintypes. First stop was less than 10 miles west of Napa and then we drove to the northeast end of Santa Rosa, where a lot of beautiful old homes were lost and now the  landscape is dotted with skeletons of cars, mangles metal and homeless chimneys, which are sticking up like miniature obelisks raised in memory of memories.  Here are some of the scenes we found there. 

  When the light faded we pressed onward up highway 101 to Arcata.  I have a particular fondness for this sleepy little town since I’ve had many fun adventures around here in the past 20 years.   The town is home to Humboldt State University and the population a nice healthy mix of students, hippies, travelers and other like-minded folks.  The best part about this town though – the trees!  This is where redwood forest really begins and right above the college campus there’s a lovely park with trees that are hard to describe and even harder to capture on collodion.  Redwood trees are the tallest trees on Earth.  They spread out their canopies and block all the light from reaching the floor.  They are also red, hence the name, and so collodion sees them as almost black.  To top everything off it’s cloudy here a lot…  And so it was on Tuesday when we got there.   Actually it was nice and sunny in the morning, not a cloud in the sky.  We got to the forest, took a small hike to look for a shooting location and by the time we were returning to the bus a light cover of clouds appeared.  By the time we were shooting the clouds were thick and grey and our exposure started to be increasingly crazy in length – 5, 6, 10min…  Luckily it’s very humid and rather chilly so the plates didn’t dry out.  We also decided to hike our gear and chemistry into the forest and for developing use a portable dark box that I made for Ishtar, so that was a good thing for her to try it out.  We didn’t get too much shooting done and the plates weren't anything spectacular, so I'll skip posting them for now (might add them later)

  After shooting we found a little coffee shop and decided to look up the weather, since from her friends in Seattle area Ishtar heard that there was a big storm happening.  The weather report was dim.  It was promising rain for Wednesday and Thursday and the farther north we looked the harder it was promising to rain.  We decided to make a change in plans, stay around Arcata for a few days, wait out the rain, shoot around town (it’s just too beautiful here…) and on Sunday Ishtar would fly back home from Sonoma.  That way the bus doesn’t have to be driven pointlessly another 700mi north and then I wouldn’t have to really race back to San Diego. 

  On Wednesday we were really planning on waking up early and heading out to shoot, since the rain wasn’t supposed to have started till afternoon.  Waking up thing didn’t really happen, but also we had a nice surprise about the rain – even though the weather didn’t really change all day and some precipitation was falling on us on and off from morning till sunset, that precipitation was light and we were actually able to shoot quite a bit.  One of my exposures was 20min though and was still underexposed…  those redwoods and rain clouds really do a great job eating up all UV light…  Best thing about that day was that Ishtar finally got a perfect plate, and I mean flawless – perfect focus, exposure, development, not a mark, no dust, no hesitation mark, not a comet in sight.  She was so emotional and happy, it was great to see.  Here are my plates from the day.

 Next day Ishtar wasn’t feeling so well and decided to stay in the hotel to recoup.  I went back to the same park and shot one 8x10 plate and a few stereoscopic plates.  During the making of one of below plates a very nice older local photographer filmed me doing the process, but I didn’t give much significance to that occurrence at the time as a lot of people make pictures and videos of Gilli.  The weather was swiftly alternating between sun and rain and the exposures were rather unpredictable, but here is my photographic catch from that day.

   Friday we wanted to shoot something other than redwoods and so we went looking around for some industrial compositions.  An old building converted to some sort of a blend of a store and plant nursery with an overabundance of variable junk in front of it provided plenty pf opportunity for interesting compositions.  We shot there for an hour or so and moved on to Arcata Bay when the sun was starting to get a bit lower. Here are the plates from that day.

After shooting we went to a coffee shop to warm up a bit and to get access to internet.  There I found an email waiting for me since that morning.  It appears that the video shot of my activities the previous day ended up on a blog and a wonderful lady saw it and emailed me saying she has two cameras that she doesn’t know what do with and seeing if I was able to stop by and take a look at them.  For me there’s nothing more fun that the proposed activity, so I called her up and 20min later she was picking us up and driving to her place (which happened to be about 7 blocks from where we were and only 2 blocks from the magically beautiful park where we were shooting before).    Lady’s name was Pam and she lived with a great fellah named Peter Palmquist, who was active in daguerrean and stereoscopic societies before I joined.  He was killed by a drunk driver about 5 years ago and since then all of his collection except for a very few things went to a museum.  The cameras turned out to be very neat.  One was a Graflex 4x5 studio monorail with two excellent lenses (Ishtar bought that one) and the other one was a relatively rare Burke and James Orbitar – a dedicated wide angle 4x5 with a 65mm Schneider lens and helicoid focusing.  I got that one for myself and was really happy because the widest lens I brought on the trip was 90.
  On Saturday the first order of business was to test out both cameras and to explain to Ishtar the beauty of Scheimpflug principle and how to apply it when need be.  Here is a picture of Ishtar and Pam next to Ishtar’s new camera and then a picture of the Orbitar camera – weird little thing, right? 

  Between talking to Pam, who stopped by because we were so close and to have her tintype made, and showing Ishtar the ropes on the monorail (oh, and she also pored her first 8x10 and I must say it came out darn near absolute perfect) I didn’t have much time to shoot, so here are the 4 plates including one I gave Pam.

  Ishtar was scheduled to fly out of Santa Rosa airport on Sunday, so we decided to start driving toward there in the evening and so now I’m finding myself in a Ukiah Motel 6 room typing up this blog and hoping that I have enough energy to proofread it and actually complete this oversized post.


Sunday, July 9, 2017

TEST - 5 Collodions With 3 Developers

  It’s been a while since I posted, but I think a whole bunch of folks, both those who are just getting into wet plate process and those who have worked with it for a while, can find some benefit in all of at least some parts of this relatively extensive test..

  Pushing your own boundaries beyond the technical comfort zone almost always results in improvement of your work.   It is with this goal that I set out to do such a test.

  For the first 3 years of my collodion practice I worked solely with Old Work Horse formula and used the same developer, which I always mixed myself.  That combination worked very reliably for me and with it I settled into a nice and comfortable pace.  Last spring I decided to broaden my horizons and push myself a little further.  I ordered an all-lithium UVP#3 formula from UV Photographics.  Advantages were touted to be faster exposures and long shelf life with no noticeable decrease in sensitivity.  I found both of those to be true, though I must say that I don’t mix a lot of it up at any one time, so maybe at most I let my UVP#3 age for about 2 months or so.  Now I am getting to the point where I want to push my image quality a bit more and so I wanted to look for new collodion mixes.  At the same time I realized that there is a plethora of various developer formulas available both in modern and historic literature.  While some of these developers are touted as being better for warm weather, which is rather important to me as I often shoot in Southern California desert, others proclaim to give more neutral or metallic look to the final image. 

  Inspired by these possibilities I contacted Brian at UV Photographics since he makes SEVEN different excellent formulas.  Brian suggested I try 3 other formulas and also asked me to test a new one he’s been working on for the past year and which is yet to be named or go on the market.  To make my test more diverse, and just to make my life a little more complicated for the sheer fun of it, I then selected two, new to me, developer formulas from over a dozen easily accessible available ones.

Collodions tested:
• UVP#4
• Lea 7
• UVP#3
• UVP-X (not yet on the market)
• Old Work Horse (mixed by UV Photographics)

Developers tested:
Anton’s formula (modified classic plain old iron sulfate, acetic acid kind) –
Waldack’s #2 (for brilliant metallic whites) – available online in Silver Sunbeam
Will Dunniway’s formula (with 10g of sugar said to be good in hot weather) – available in Will’s manual

  So, how would I go about determining which collodion would be most responsive to light and at the same time see which developer gave me the brightest highlights?  After thinking about it for a bit I devised the following procedure.

  Step 1 - I wanted to see how reactive each developer was with each collodion and what would be my maximum development time with each of the 15 resulting collodion/developer combinations.  Collodion will give you brightest highlight if you carry on development to the maximum time possible.  Of course, you don’t want to go overboard with development and have overdevelopment fog set in within shadow areas.  Figuring that out is actually relatively simple – take a plate, coat with collodion, sensitize, do not expose, pour on developer and let it sit on there for about the time you think is good (say 30sec), tilt the plate and with a squirt bottle wash off developer from the bottom 1/3 portion, let the rest of it develop for another 5 or so seconds, start washing it off from the middle section, let the top part develop for another 5 or so seconds and wash off the rest of it.  Ideally after fixing you will see the 30 second be perfectly black, 35sec part may have a tiny bit of fog, 40sec part will have obvious fogging.   If that’s the exact case then your maximum development time is somewhere between 30 and 35 seconds.  If all sections have fog – repeat the test with less time.  If all the sections are black – repeat the test with longer times.  I was able to accomplish testing 15 collodion/developer combinations with 20 little plates (mainly because two of the developer formulas I have never used before and had no point of reference as to what development time to test around). 
  Note – with every formula your maximum development time will vary depending on developer temperature of developer and ambient temperature as well.  Thus, ideally, every once in a while, you might want to waste a plate and do that test whenever something changes.

  Here is and the chart showing maximum development times I arrived at andone of the resulting plates showing development for 30,35 and 40sec.  My developer temperature was about 65F (18C) and ambient temperature was 72F (21C).

  Step 2 – Now comes determining if any of the collodion formulas are truly more light-sensitive and seeing how different developers affect the image.  I set up a still life and a couple of stationary Photogenic flashes were hooked up to a modern lens (210mm Fujinon-W).  Aperture was kept the same (f8).  Then all the 15 combinations were exposed exactly the same and developed for the times I figured out in step 1.
To figure out how far to put the lights or what power setting to give them I used a light meter and my previous experience of how Old Work Horse would work with my usual developer.

  Here is a photo of my little still life setup and 15 resulting plates.  The plates are arranged in the same order as written down in the table for step 1 above.  Way at the bottom of the post is a full size render of the 15-plate grid in case you want to look closer at detail.

  A few more technical details about the above results. 

  All of the 5 collodion formulas tested were mixed 2 weeks ago.  As they age they will probably show a lot more difference in speed and contrast.
  First off – these plates were copied DRY on a Polaroid MP-4 copy stand using Canon 5D Mark II camera.  Applying different VARNISH will of course have different effect on final plate tone.
  To keep color balance and curves consistent I first photographed a color test target, then in Lightroom I balanced that target and applied those same settings to all following images.
KCN fixer was used on all plates, 1.4% solution.
  Not all the pours are perfect... In the shuffle during the wash I did manage to scratch a couple plates... I guess a few weren't washed all the way, so there's yellow stains... For all those imperfections that may offend your eye I am truly sorry.

  One more short note.  As I mentioned previously, for the first 3 years of my wet plate practice I used all exact same chemistry – OWH collodion, my modified developer formula, KCN fix and sandarac varnish.   Lately I went to look for a specific image and stumbled upon come of my earliest plates.  To my surprise the tone of most of those plates was almost entirely neutral, while almost no matter what I do recently all my plates are coming out rather warm-tone.  This makes me think that along with everything silver nitrate bath has a very strong effect on final tone of the image.  After all, with all the other chemistry being completely consistent it is only the silver bath that has changed – I do maintain it regularly, but it basically has the same silver in it with which I started in spring of 2013.

  I am not going to drone on about which of the above collodion/developer combinations I personally like best or worst – I’d rather let my readers decide on their own which tonality they would like to see in their images.  I would also like to caution that all of this is just MY TEST – your results will more likely than not vary slightly, so I highly encourage you to contact Brian at UV Photographics and get yourself some new collodion formulas you haven’t tried.  Then, if you want to try other developer formulas, go poke about the web and see what you can find.  Most all of the ingredients for various developers can be bought from Photographer’sFormulary or your local chemistry supply shop.