Friday, July 12, 2013

One month on the road

  The other day I realized that it's been just over a month since I left San Diego in search of Americana and a mission to make as many wet plate images as possible.  This realization led me to want to write an update, but now that I've sat down to do so I realize that a lot has happened even since the last update, so I don't know how long this post is going to end up being.  Here we go.

  At the Rainbow Gathering I shot about 26 rolls of regular film.  23 120 with my trusty Rolleiflex F and 3 35mm with a Stereo Realist.  I know, I know - what am I doing shooting dry gelatin silver film?  Well, tintypes require a darkroom to be nearby where the image is captured and since there are no cars allowed inside the Rainbow I had to resort to my old habits.  Next year I am going to be prepared and will have a setup, I think it would be a perfect place to make a series of portraits.  This time I shot film and afterward I was really looking forward to seeing the latent images (maybe I'm spoiled by wet plate now and want to see those pictures as soon as I capture them....), so I headed back up to Photographers Formulary knowing that their darkroom would be a perfect place to get some developing done.  Did I mention that use of the darkroom is included if you say at the Standing Stones Bed and Breakfast?!  What a deal! 

  On my way there I pulled over a few times and made a some more Montana plates.

Grass and River

Seeley Lake 2

On Montana Highway 83

Road to Linbergh Lake

   I got to Photographers Formulary pretty late and decided to wait until a fresh new day to start the developing marathon.  I can't say enough good things about their darkroom and the work flew by quickly and without a hitch.  26 rolls were all processed, dried and contact sheets made from them in the matter of about 5 hours (could have done it faster if I had more or bigger steel tanks, but as it was I had to do 4 rolls at a time...).

Rolls of Verichrome Pan waiting to reveal their treasures

Contact sheets drying

  Upon having a quick look at the contact sheets I found this image too cool not to post - how often do you see a tattoo of a Rolleiflex or any other camera for that matter?  When I walked by this girl at the trade circle while carrying my Rollei TLR she called my attention and proudly said 'my Rollei is always with me' while flexing her arm.  I think the other tat is pretty nifty too - a simple biological representation of a plant cell.  

  After departing from the comfort of Photographers Formulary I headed east on Montana highway 200.  The road quickly turned from this:

To this:
  Still, there was plenty to shoot and I kept stopping and documenting what I found.
I am now totally hooked on shooting animals.
By Jordan MT

Big abandoned building by the highway.

   I went inside and saw a large rat tail disappear under the rubble and in the next room there were birds nests and one dead bird was swinging slowly suspended from the ceiling on a wire...  Kinda gave me the creeps.
  Probably the best plate of the abandoned building shoot.  I really hope it doesn't develop a yellow line on the right side after it accidentally dried there before being washed....

By Wyndham MT

Grain Elevator By Wyndham MT 1

Grain Elevator By Wyndham MT 2 

  After the sun went down I drove straight to Glendive where the small highway 200 joins 94 freeway.  I don't know what it is about my luck with sleeping spots, but for the second time I picked a place right next to where train tracks cross a road and have to warn traffic by blowing their extraordinarily loud horn a few times...  I was afraid that it was going to go on all night like it did in Seattle, but luckily they quieted down after midnight and I go some sleep.  In the morning I went to the store to replenish my dwindling food supplies and upon coming out found a very nice guy waiting for me by Gilli.  His name is Bill Schmidt and he was super excited to tell me that he too has a 35ft Gillig bus and is waiting to convert it into an RV. His is a 1971 and came from Antelope Valley CA.  It's always nice to meet people who either have aGillig bus or even know what they are.  After a short tour we chatted a bit and he told me that he'd owned converted buses for a few decades now and is completely hooked on having one now.  I hope he contacts me later and we'll have a nice reunion after he converts his Gillig.

  Glendive is pretty close to North Dakota and so I decided to make my next pictures there.  Most of you have probably heard that the northern part of ND is experiencing quite an oil boom, so I decided to find me some oil rigs to shoot.  Unfortunately the day started off extremely hot and the forecast was predicting a high of 102°.  I drove to Belfield (a town on the southern edge of the oil exploration) and by the time I got there it was so hot that all I could do is find a nice shady spot and take a nap.  When I went to sleep it was sunny and hot.  When I got up not a full hour later, the sky was overcast and the wind had picked rather noticeably.  I hopped behind the wheel and pulled out in search of an oil rig.  What I saw to the west was a very ominous looking deeply grey cloud with obviously heavy rain under it.  Undeterred by that site I drove up to the nearest rig.  By the time I was done washing the plate the sky looked like this, lightning was all around and first drops of rain were starting to fall.

  I started driving east as far as Gilli goes and turned the radio on just in time to hear the emergency broadcast system and a warning about a possibility of a tornado and a definite prediction of a severe thunderstorm with possible hail...  The announcers kept talking about a 'wall cloud' and how they didn't see any rotation in it yet.  In a few miles I saw what they were talking about - if this is not a WALL CLOUD then I don't know what is...

  Radio signal was being interrupted by loud hissing every time I saw lightning in my rear view mirror and that was about every 3-5 seconds.  I think the following image reflects perfectly what my getaway felt like.

  After escaping the storm I drove to the capitol of North Dakota - Bismarck.  A couple of days before I posted that I'll be in North Dakota in one of the groups on Facebook dedicated to wet plate photography and someone suggested that I meet with Shane Balkowitsch.  I sent him a friend request and was quickly approved, we stuck up a conversation online and soon he called me in person.  He sounded like a great guy and invited me to watch one of his Friday sittings.  After hearing that I may not be be in the best of shapes from the long and windy road he was extremely kind to actually donate a room at the local Comfort Inn (owned by his cousin as it happens).  I couldn't believe my luck and went to sleep happy and in comfort (no pun intended).  This morning I drove right to his studio/darkroom and a the fun began.

  Shane explained to me in no uncertain terms that he is NOT a photographer.  This sounded rather odd coming from someone who's progress in the world of wet plate imagery I had been watching in that Facebook group for what seemed like quite a while now.  I remember seeing him in the process of building the studio/darkroom, getting his cameras, finding lenses....  What I didn't realize is that Shane started doing photography after seeing some online images of wet plate process.  For some reason it called to him and even though he had admittedly never owned even a 35mm camera before he went all out and started a self-teaching process of trial and error.  Shane actually owns a business - Balkowitsch Enterprises.  It must be one of the earliest online retailers and has been online since 1997 - remember the days of dial-up, before cell phones became a natural attachment to every walking human in out society?  Yep, Shane thought way back when "hey, we can sell things worldwide using this new internet thing!"   Now you can buy anything and every there, he employs a good size staff and has a pretty sizable warehouse a corner of which is converted into ta beautiful little wet plate space.  He calls it Nostalgic Glass Studio and all he does there is shoot friends, relatives and other interested folks for free, keeps the best plate for himself and gives the rest to the sitters.  What a guy!  Her is his in his silver-stained jeans behind the wheel of Gilli.

   It's pretty neat to step into a place that you've been watching in the process of construction from the start.  I remember Shane's post when he painted the floor black, got the sign done, placed that black rectangle on the door and labeled it 'clear ambrotype viewing area' and more recently got those cookie sheets that you can see to the left of the white desk on a shelf under the table (he uses those to protect the plates from dust while they are being varnished).   Now I was actually in this space and it really felt familiar.  He has pretty excellent lighting setup and before his sitters showed up he went on to make this wonderful 5x7 clear glass ambrotype of me - I think I look like a mafia boss, but others have suggested that I look more like a miner on his weekend.

  Here Shane is seen cleaning the glass for the shoot.  He cleans it with whiting right before shooting - I think that's a pretty good idea and I might start doing that since recently I had some unfortunate markings on some of my glass plates that I cleaned very well before taking off on the trip.

  His sitters today were a lovely couple recommended by his brother.  They took a quick tour of my darkroom as well and patiently sat through a short history of photography lecture illustrated by the various prints I have in The Photo Palace Bus.  Here the model is seen in the ground glass of his modern replica wet plate camera.

   And here she is in a non-inverted way, posing my the florescent light banks.

  Shane actually let me handle the lighting and I was happy to do so - I love working in the studio and don't get enough of it.  We did a couple of shots using short Rembrandt light and then one butterfly.  Then we decided to take one shot of her husband and that one really turned out to be the best shot of the day in my view.  He was placed in a floppy leather-looking hat and flannel shirt and given a bottle of whiskey, made to straddle a chair while looking square into the camera and lit with two rim lights and flat Rembrandt.  The shot turned out absolutely fantastic - I hope to put a link to it someday when Shane places it online. 
  In the end I did two plates of Shane by Gilli's tire and gave one to him in exchange for the above portrait of yours truly.  Here is a plate that I kept for myself - luckily he actually liked the other one, which was more gritty and high contrast, this was the second one and we used a reflector on it to soften the light.  In the first shot he really looks like a WWII mechanic even more so than he does here.

  We parted after about 6 hours together and now I feel that we are really good friends - incredible how a 150 year old photo process can bring together two people and give them a wonderful opportunity to become close while speaking the same language.  I'll have to be back in North Dakota and hope to see Shane and his family even before that happens.  

  Soon I was on the freeway again. The sun was getting close to being too low and I decided to pull over at the first town that I came across to make some more plates.  That town turned out to be Tapppen.  I knew I liked it when I saw this Thank You tag on one of the abandoned buildings

  There I made two plates and here they are still in the washing process.  Can't say that the reflection of the sky and my shadow makes the images better, but this is not really a venue for you folks to really appreciate the fine qualities of tintypes - that will have to wait till a show of some sort after the trip is complete.

  OK, this was today and now I'm in Jamestown, about to finish a rather long post (it's past midnight.... gee... every time....).

  As I mentioned before - it's been a month on the road now.  I feel great and I think the plate making process is starting to become more familiar to me.  I even mixed up a new batch of developer that I use when the darkroom is above 85°F - it has more restrainer and water than regular batch of developer. Next step - actually trying a whole new developer formula with pyrogallic acid (but more about that later).  Right now I still hold a shed of hope that by some miracle the funding campaign on indiegogo will reach at least 50% of the goal.  If it doesn't I do have an alternative plan of action, but it would really mean that the whole 4-corners of the country goal will not be accomplished.  Florida will have to wait.  Still - last month on the road has been great.  Over 3500 miles have been covered and I must have made over 50 plates by now and am picking up speed, the people I met have been wonderful and I'm looking forward to meeting many more.  Some really neat events are coming up in August - they will be a surprise for you, my dear readers.
  Right now I'm going to drive as far as I can toward Minnesota - tomorrow I'll probably shoot a few more plates in North Dakota by Fargo, I don't think I've ever been to this state and feel that at least 3 more plates are called for before I leave.

Singing off,
Anton Orlov


  1. It was a very enjoyable afternoon, thanks for making it so memorable. I cannot wait for our paths to cross again Anton, and put that silver to good use.

    Your wet plate friend and partner in crime,

  2. Anton, it is great to follow you and Gilli. Each plate is a chapter in your journey, and I have enjoyed experiencing the people and places through your eyes, and your dream.