Thursday, August 8, 2013

BIGGEST UPDATE EVER: Buffalo, Wet Plate Jamboree...

WARNING - this is the longest update I will probably ever write.  It was worked on over the period of three days in five different locations.  Grab a cup of coffee, sit back in your favorite chair and enjoy the ride!

  First things first.  Last post was done while I was still in Ohio and to get to Buffalo I took route 20 along Lake Erie.  First short stop was in Cleveland.  That city has been recently in the news for all the wrong reasons, but I found it to be quite interesting visually and so stopped to make these two images.  I would have made more plates there, but the sun was starting to go down, so I pushed onward and found a quiet place to park for the night.

  After waking up I realized that I had a rare chance to make tintypes that day in three different states - OH, PA and NY.  The first compositions that I found to be compelling enough for a stop were in the town of Conneaut.

  Next was a short strip of Pennsylvania and there I stopped in Erie to capture the old charm of that quaint little city with the following two plates.

  After I entered the state of New York I did not drive more than 100ft before seeing a barn that really called to me, so I turned around for the following scenes on the edge of a town called Ripley.

  Apparently a bar right next to where I pulled over had live music in celebration of the owner's birthday and a special on chicken wings, so I could not resist having a taste of local culture by sampling the goods - I must admit there were the best BBQ wings I have ever had.
  Powered by that I pressed on to the town of Portland and arrived there just in time to be able to make these two tintypes.

  By the time I was done with the wash it was rather dark outside, so drove on toward Buffalo as far as I could.

 Next day I had a workshop scheduled and, not wanting to be late for that, I drove straight there in the morning.  Turned out that I got there pretty early and so had time to create the following tintypes before going to meet my student.

  Not being entirely happy with the results I was getting with the new batch of collodion that I started working with just that morning I experimented with it a bit more at the location where the workshop was to take place.  Here is the resulting images with which I was happy.

  I didn't have to wait long until John Waller arrived for his first experience with wet plate images.  

  As you can see by his tattoo he is no stranger to large format photography, but wanted to see if working with collodion will be something that meshes with his nature well.  I have to say that he was a natural at all the minute details that are involved in the process and made three excellent images during a short period of time.  Besides being a creative photographer and an obsessive long-distance runner,  John has the discipline and attention to detail that comes with his IT-related job and a chemistry background as well, so I think he'll go far when he starts making his own collodion images.  Afterward we went out to dinner and on the way John showed me a great place to go in the morning to shoot some more industrial scenery in Buffalo.  
  I actually chose to park right there for the night and woke up to make 4 more plates.  Unfortunately it appears that I don't have them copied just yet, so I'll try to remember to update this post later and post them up.  For now, here they are being washed with Gilli in the background basking in the morning sun.

  While I was there my fiend Rob McElroy called me up knowing I'm in town and inquired what I was doing in the next few hours.  I had to be at Delaware Camera shop by 4pm, but had no particular plans until then.  Rob told me to sit tight and that he was going to contact some of the local media to see if they wanted to cover my second appearance in Buffalo.  It was not long until Channel 2 News, a local NBC affiliate, called me and sent a reporter my way to see what I was up to.  He led me to the local abandoned train station - Central Terminal and there conducted a SHORT INTERVIEW while I was making the following tintypes.  I think he did a great job on the interview and the images also turned out quite well, so I was very happy.

  At Delaware Camera I was greeted by Eric Jensen.  I set up the history of photography display and got my wet plate chemistry set up in anticipation of portrait customers.  Eric posted the event on the store's social media and so I had a good flow of people coming through all day.  Rob McElroy stopped by and documented the event with his digital camera.  Visitors took their chance to look at the history display, peek their heads into the darkroom and buy some of my original prints and plates.  Two people came from PA with their son to have a couple of tintype portraits done.  They dressed up in time-appropriate attire and the images came out splendidly.

  Here is something VERY interesting that happened and we have Gilli to thank for being a catalyst.  Apparently Rob was talking with someone he knows well and in the conversation mentioned for one reason or another a local photographer by the name of Howard Beach - a well-known portrait photographer during 1920-40s time.  That was overheard by another bus visitor and he said that as it happens he knows a lady who currently owns his old house.  Not only that, he said that her father, who bought the building after Howard passed away, has not touched his negatives and other belongings since 1947!!!  He offered to arrange a tour of the house for later that evening and I was invited to come along...

  At 8pm we (a party of 4 explorers) met the owner of a house and were led inside a beautiful brick house... WOW!  No words can describe the astonishing beauty of this place and the real photographic time capsule that we found ourselves in.  This house was actually owned by another photographer Eleck Hall prior to Beach, so it was a site for art making for about 50 years starting in late 19th century.  The walls and ceiling were painted with ornate patterns, there were wood carvings the likes of which I had never seen before, old gas light fixtures were still sticking out out the walls.... and that was just the reception room!  First we went down to the basement.  It was a labyrinth of rooms - negative storage rooms, darkroom, more negative storage rooms...  Everything was covered with an inch of dust and mold has taken hold of pretty much anything with a surface.  That only added to the experience.  Boxes upon boxed of glass negatives were still stacked in rows and piles.  Mr. Beach was one of the most prolific photographers in Buffalo and he that clearly showed.  Rooms were numbered with negative reference numbers - one room would hold about 15.000(!) glass plates, and there were at least half a dozen rooms like that.  First we saw 5x7 plates, then 8x10, then 11x14, 16x20 and finally 20x24in GLASS PLATE NEGATIVES!  (you can see the look in my eyes in one of the pictures below... - that pretty much sums it all up...).  Bottle of chemicals were still sitting on shelves in the darkroom  Dust one off and you can read the hand written label - "Boric Acid, another one "Pyro" and so on...  On the wall there was even the old intercom system that would have had two bakelite cones for listening and speaking into (those were removed at some point) - labels by the buttons read 'reception', 'printing room', darkroom' and 'retouching room'.  Howard Beach was also the inventor of  bi-focal lenses in 1920s - his glass grinding blocks and lens elements were strewed about in various places.  Rob was ecstatic - as it happens he knows Beach's work very well and has two beautiful portraits done by Beach hanging in the office, so he could not believe that all this time these precious negatives were sitting untouched just two blocks from away.  Our hands became quickly covered with dirt, but none were as dirty as Rob's hands - he must have opened every box and overturned every cover - he is extremely meticulous.  Most of this had to be done by the light of a single construction light, which had to be dragged from room to room and plugged into various outlets as the electrical system in the house was 100+ years old and unreliable to say the least.  This truly made it feel like we were exploring a system of caves and made the experience even more thrilling.  I will never forget stepping into an octagonal century-old vault in the deepest corner of the basement, behind an iron door... In it - more negatives or course!  There were also a ton of old prints (most of them being eaten by mold and fungus), boxed of never used lens packaging, Beach's old diploma...  it was all there....  We must have spent a good hour and a half in the basement along and there was still two floors above us!  On the second floor there was a contraption for making contact prints that would hold at least 30 8x10 and 11x14 printing frames and would rotate them around a carbon-arc light!  None of us have ever seen anything like that and when I left Buffalo two days later Rob was still obsessed with going through his library to find it in one of the catalogs.  Unfortunately the old sky-light for the studio was taken out when the previous owner converted the top floor into his office, but thank god for his decision to ;eave the rest of it all virtually untouched.  I can probably go on and on about this experience, but they say that a picture is worth a thousand words, so below are some of the photos taken by me and Rob on this once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
Rob found the original plaque still on the wall by the door

The house as it is now

This is a picture of the house with the skylight studio still visible

Downstairs reception room

More of the reception room

The textures....  Too bad I can't post the smell of the place on here - that smell...

More negative boxes...

Vault door

Look at the size of those negatives!

Glass grinding stones

Hand-written notebooks...

Gorgeous prints!

More negatives....

Intercom system 


Printing apparatus

Carbon Ark Light!

Basement shot by Rob McElroy 

You can tell how I'm feeling by the look in my eyes. This was taken in the vault.

More negative boxes...

  The entire house is in desperate need of major repair and, as you can probably tell, the collection of negatives is in need of preservation work... Rob promised the owner to help her out with sorting and evaluating all the photo-related items and I believe he will do the absolute best job possible and will honor this treasure-trove to the utmost highest degree.
  We did not leave the house until 11pm and we cold have been there all night if the owner didn't have prior commitments.  Rob didn't even realize that it was 11 and when I alerted him of the fact he looked extremely surprised and alarmed - we got back to his place to find quite a few worried emails from his girlfriend...
 That night I dreamed of rusty cameras...

  Next day we had were invited to view a photo exhibit in a great old industrial building called High-Temp Fabrications.  Before then Rob and I took Gilli-the-Gillig to an extraordinarily important location as far as history of photography is concerned so I could make a tintype of it.   The Albright-Knox Art Gallery, located in Buffalo, was a place where in 1910 Alfred Stieglitz held his biggest exhibition of photography.  The entire museum was cleared of all other work and all the rooms were devoted solely to photography as an art form.  It is said that this was the first time that the medium of photography was truly recognized as an art form and honored as such.  The show was mostly by invitation, but there was also an open entry section.  It felt fantastic to step in front of this palace of the arts and I made the following plate in front of it and the second one across the street at a lovely park designed by the same urban planner who designed Central Park in NYC - Frederick Law Olmsted

   Later that night Rob was kind enough to dig out the original catalog for the 1910 exhibit and I thumbed through it with overwhelming trepidation.

  Before that though we did head over to the show at High-Temp and enjoyed a great time talking to the artists and browsing the art.  I can't believe I didn't take a shot of the darkened second room that had a corridor of translucent fabric suspended from the ceiling on the mack of which was projected a slide show from multiple old-school Kodak projectors.  There were at least 6-7 projectors going all at once and the sound of them clicking away was a sweet photographic aria to my ears.

  While we were at the show a couple of people from Burchfield-Penny Art Center stopped by for a visit.  The director is Tony Bannon (he was at Burchfield-Penny before, then left to direct the George Eastman House and now is back at Burchfield-Penny) and the chief curator Jeff Propeck.  After they enjoyed the show we wend down to the bus and I showed them some of my works.  They seemed please with what was shown and even hinted at purchasing a couple of plates in the future, the prospect of which was a true thrill to hear.
Here they are looking at some of my old prints.
I look concerned because I know that this is not a coherent body of work being shown...

Tintypes really sparked an interest though and I relaxed a bit.

  We had to return upstairs to the gallery and on the way back down shared the elevator with a group of enthusiastic young folks who actually do a great thing by taking in all the unwanted props after the Fashion Week in NYC and re-purpose, reuse and recycle it.  They were invited to come on the bus and were shown the history display in a more random order than I usually like to present it.

  After leaving the High-Temp building Rob quickly took me by the building that still has the last of the original skylight studios in Buffalo.  What an amazing structure...  I would LOVE to rent it, but it's $5K a month!  Looking at it did however rekindle my long-time desire to build one of these for myself in San Diego and I'll start working on the logistics of that project when I get back there.

  One of the people who visited the bus at Delaware Camera was Lauren Trent - educational director of CEPA.  She expressed interest in my mission and the plates I was producing, so Rob and I stopped by there to see the facilities and to talk with Lauren.  CEPA is located in a gorgeous old building downtown Buffalo and has plentiful exhibition spaces currently filled with excellent mural prints done digitally from scanned 8x10 negatives.  They also have a rental darkroom and a computer lab where they conduct classes.  Lauren was happy to show us around and we discussed a possibility of showing the work I'm amassing right now in the future, which would be pretty darn neat.

Darkroom with Rob at one of the enlargers.
23c Besselers - a staple of any rental space!

Macs in the digital lab - excellent!

In one of the exhibition hallways with Lauren

 Of course I could write a whole separate vlog entry on the marvels of Rod McElroys studio/office/house and the plethora of curiosities that surround whoever steps in there....  It's really too much to take in though, so I'll just post this picture of an autochrome in an original presentation form - back-lit over a mirror!  If you ever get a chance to behold a real autochrome you'll know what I'm talking about when I say that they have a real presence, but to actually see one in an original casing is a rarity beyond anything I could have hoped for.

  Next morning I departed Buffalo and was on the way to Dundee for John Coffer's 2013 Wet Plate Jamboree.  John Coffer is the man who in 1970s took upon himself a mission of bringing back the process of making wet plate images out of complete obscurity.  From what I understand at that time the process was completely forgotten, chemistry was unavailable, no modern manuals existed and not a single soul in the world was making tintypes and ambrotypes.  After all, why would one want to do that when you could buy dry film and make images faster, cheaper, easier....?  Sounds familiar?  Sorta like the digital wave right now...  Well, John was working in Florida at the time and somehow or another the idea of making collodion images got hold of him so strong that he dropped out of regular societal rat race.  He got a horse (named Brownie) and a covered wagon and started traveling the country in much the same way that 19th century photographers did.  It took him years to come upon a break-through that presented itself in a form of an old hand-written manual written by a photographer and stored in the archives of a historic society in Oregon.  From that manual John extracted the information needed to begin the process of revitalization of this marvelous technique.  Now you can bet that if you took a workshop in wet plate photography you can trace back the lineage of teachers back to Mr. Coffer.  I know people who have taught themselves this process using just his manual, which most simply refer to as The Bible.
   Now John lives on a farm just south of the village of Dundee and calls it 'Camp Tintype'.  He has no electricity (save for an emergency generator and a solar/wind power station that charges his electric bike) and draws water from a well.  From ground-up he built a beautiful little cabin  that is pictured in one of my tintypes below.  He has chickens (from which he procures delicious eggs that are also useful in albumen printing), cows, horses and a sweet garden. 
  Every year John holds a Wet Plate Jamboree - for a few days tintypists from all over the country and beyond gather at Camp Tintype to make images, share their knowledge and just to relax and get away from the hustle and bustle of their every day lives.  I heard about this event and sent John a post card requesting permission to come by.  As I am traveling myself I had to ask him to send his reply to my friend in Rhode Island, which he did in  form of a kind hand-written letter complete with a map and a picture of one of his chickens as letterhead.  He mentioned that I could arrive as early as Thursday and I jumped at that opportunity.
  On the way there I did try to actually write up this blog post,.  After working on it for a few hours in a coffee shop in the town of Geneva I realized that there was no way that this can be accomplished and I was too anxious to get to John's...  Upon arriving there I immediately fell in love with the setting of the simple farm life.  Though I have always been a city boy, I can totally see myself living like John does and enjoying it immensely.   Most folks were not there yet, so I got a prime parking spot for Gilli.  The sun was going down, so after a quick hello I made two images and by the time they were done it was time for bed (plus it took me a total of 5 hours to drive there from Buffalo and driving the bus for that long is pretty exhausting).
  Next day people started arriving and setting up their dark boxes, rolling out an unfolding tripods and camera stands, mixing chemistry and unveiling their cameras.  All in all there were probably 30+ artists who came to Camp Tintype this year.  I saw cameras and lenses that I have never seen before, learned techniques that I didn't think existed, watched people pour their plates, made lots of new friends and I think I had almost everyone in attendance take a tour of The Photo Palace Bus.  
  Activities included a daguerreotype demo by Nate Gibbons, a wonderful feast on Saturday hosted by Central Cafe of Dundee, a raffle for all sorts of goodies and much more that I probably am not recalling now.  One of the highlights was John asking me if Gilli-the-Gillig could serve as the backdrop for the annual group photo - what an honor! Also a really great 11x11in clear glass ambrotype was done of me standing in the doorway of The Photo Palace Bus.
  My visit was complete with a couple of first-for-me experiences such as firing my first ever gun (a black powder replica of a 1800s revolver) and a ride on a 1923 Model T Ford with John Coffer himself at the wheel.  I had an absolutely fantastic time and was really sad that it had to come to an end come Sunday.  Luckily I didn't have to be anywhere in a hurry, so I decided to stick around till Monday.  I did see that John had a Magic Lantern in possession and mentioned to one of the campers something about my Russian slide collection and that I too had a Lantern on board.  Apparently the word got to John and right as I was wrapping everything up on Monday I was asked to stay for one more night and participate in a dual Lantern show - that was the cherry on top of the entire experience.
  Below are some of the digital images I took at Camp Tintype followed by the tintypes I made there.  Enjoy!
Entrance to Camp Tintype

John Coffer riding on The Photo Palace Bus

Gilli parked for the first night

 Various views around the farm

The Photographic Van that John Traveled around the country with

 Various setups and photographers in progress of working on images

Plenty of gunfire was heard throughout the weekend, 
all sorts of vintage and replica guns were used

Nate Gibbons demonstrating the making of a daguerreotype

John Coffer giving people rides on his Model T Ford - what a thrill!

The raffle in progress 

Really awesome camera - I don't think it got sold, but it is a HOT deal folks!
$2800 for an 8x10 with holder, reducing back and a lens with a full set of stops!
Write to John and work out a shipping deal....

People gathered around Gilli for the group shot

35mm microtype of the moment by Greg Martin

John Coffer's 8x10 of the group shot, 
there will be a much better copy of this on his website soon

A delicious dinner cooked for me on board the palace,
the stove has not been fired up in 13 months prior to this!

John and his Magic Lantern

Monday night Lantern Show in progress













3.5x4.5  (VERY challenging to make this one...)

4x6 Made by request for Shane Balkowitch















  I left Camp Tintype on Tuesday morning with a strong feeling that I need to come back every year.  

  Really needing to relax for a bit I drove straight to Albany area where I had an invitation from Tim Massie to stay at his home when I'm in the area and I am not one to pass up such a generous offer.  I got to Tim's in the evening and was greeted by him along with his wife and two lovely children.  Apparently Tim saw my post in Film Shooters group on Facebook, so I was really surprised to hear that although he had been shooting film for a number of years now, he has never developed his own roll of film.  Well, now there was a darkroom parked at his place and there was no excuse!  I quickly transformed the back of the bus back into a gelatin silver working environment, some Rodinal was mixed up and and two rolls of film were developed.  Tim did great working with stainless steel tanks of both 35mm and 120 format and I saw the same flicker in his eyes that I usually see when people first view the wet negative images of their first hand-processed roll.  I love that moment!

  While developing film, Tim told me of a place in Troy called Photo Center that was run by Nicholas Argyros and said that I simply must meet him and see his creation.  Next day after Tim got back from work we took the bus over to Troy and were met by an extraordinarily nice owner of Photo Center.  Nicholas has a true passion for vintage photography and has a tremendous collection of everything associated with image-making - cameras, darkroom stuff, Magic Lanterns, books... Even while waiting for him outside of the place and looking through the window pictured below I could imagine the wonderful smell of old equipment that was sure to greet us upon entry.  Sure enough - that smell of old cameras lingered in the air on all three floors of the 110 year old building.  Photo Center is an organization that offers it's members use of a darkroom (which I didn't see because it's located in a different building), various activities and classes, member shows and even the use of the 5000+ item photographic library in which the owner is pictured below as well.  After a tour of the place, which as far as I'm concerned could have lasted a week and I would have been still enjoying it, it was time to take a look at The Photo Palace Bus and I think it and the work I showed left a memorable impression.  Then Nicholas took me to dinner and we conversed about the passion we both shared.  As we were leaving the local restaurant Nicholas actually expressed interest in purchasing some of my work, so we headed back to the bus and he picked out two tintypes - one of a TLR Argus that I had done back in San Diego and one of the shots from Montana of an abandoned grain elevator.  I was thrilled not only to have my work enter into another private collection, but to also have some funds for another tank of gas and then some. 
  Here are some images that I took during that memorable visit.
Looking in through the front window

Camera case - not even all of one case here....

Lovely row of projection devices including Magic Lanterns and early movie projectors

...... ! .....

Nicholas Argyros and about 1/4 of the library behind him

  Now it is Thursday and I've been working on this update for way too long.  If it doesn't get at least 1000 hits I will be sorely disappointed - so help me out, and share this wherever you can!  Actually I just checked and as far as word count goes there is a longer update from last year, but as far as image count plus word count this one beats it by far.



  1. I hope you can keep this trip going Anton. It sounds wonderful.

  2. Wow. This is amazing. I wish you did video so we could experience it too. Even an iPhone video would be cool. Love the stories and the whole process. Another point about digital is that i wonder if it will even be around in 100 years. What happens to all of the pictures? What if hard drives fail and the pictures are gone? That's what worries me. I make Blurb books of all of my favorite photos just in case. I want it as a physical entity in my hands. Great article, and keep them coming.

  3. I think I need to visit Troy in the future!


  4. UAU, that's a rock&roll. I must come to Coffer's event, it looks so much fun! Well done, you are working hard, making good stuff. This will be one of your best memories of your life, so keep up with the blog, with that public journal ;-)