Friday, May 7, 2021

Tintypes Made Using Focusing Loupes As Lenses

  This personal project was born of lifelong pursuit of charting new paths upon the broad field of artistic landscape, combined with an unexplained passion for vintage ground glass focusing loupes.  I’ll never seize looking for magical yet unexplored ways in which to see the world, and translating those findings into the language of photography; this is but one such journey.

  A lot of people have used a plethora of things in place of a lens to make photographic images.  Prior to this project I can’t say I employed anything but a real photographic lens for this purpose.  A couple college experiments with pinhole was enough for me to know that it’s not my cup of tea, and image samples I’ve seen from DIY optics so far failed to excite my imagination. Online I have found endless number of instructions for all sorts of homemade optics, including those using a regular simple magnifying glass.  Even drinking straws have been used to capture an image.  I have not however found any mention of anyone using photographic loupes, whether those meant for ground glass focusing or negative examination.   

  Employing wet plate medium for this project was a natural choice.  Incidentally, I picked up my very first loupe in spring of 2013, the same month that I learned wet plate.  Next year, Will Dunniway, a prominent figure in the world of wet plate, really catalyzed my interest in loupes, and through the years helped the collection grow. Sadly, Will Dunniway passed away in early April of this year, the same month that my collection did in fact reach goal number. That prompted me to start writing the larger post and to finally make these images.  Many shall miss Will, and these two posts are dedicated to his memory.

  Technical challenges in creating these tintypes weren’t too numerous.  Main task was affixing those loupes to my camera.  Without a universal iris clamp it would have been a minor nightmare to try out as many loupes as I did in order to select the dozen examples shown here.  I’m glad to have experimented with plenty of vintage lenses in the past though, and for that task having a clamp like this is essential.  Having it meant that I could swap my loupes in and out in matter of seconds.  Working distance was also a bit of a trick to overcome.  Most loupes have miserably close focus of about one inch or so, and so their bottom edge needs to be almost right on the focal plane.  This meant that the bellows on my 4x5 needed to be compressed as much as they could be, and still with some lenses I couldn’t achieve focus on infinity.  That’s ok though, I wasn’t set on making landscapes or portraits anyway.  Also, due to such short focus, this optics turns out to have a very fast working aperture, and that means an extremely shallow depth of field.  This worked nicely though to exaggerate bokeh when getting up-close with various small organic objects I picked up along my travels, with the flower having been the only object specifically gathered for this project. 

  Above you can see the studio setup for most following close-up images, minus the large soft box out of frame view.  I started by working outside, but a few plates had odd ghosting effects, caused by light reflecting from shiny brass or lacquered black surfaces.  Keeping some of those plates, I later moved indoors for a more controlled environment.  Since the glass in these is almost never symmetrical, in order to see possible differences, two images of each object were made with same loupe: one image through top, and one through bottom. 

  Below images show two tintypes and the loupe they were captured with, with images positioned by respective end through which they were shot.  Each plate is 2.75x3.25in, which is a traditional 1/6th plate size; from that you can judge circle of coverage as well as approximate scale of loupes pictured.   

Early Dallmeyer


Emil Busch

C. P. Goerz


E. Krauss

E. Anthony



SOM Berthiot


Zeiss Jena

  In the end, I picked 20 images to make this collage in a 12x18in frame, and it is now available for your collection.

Twenty 1/6th Plate Tintypes in 12x18in Frame

  A great deal of thanks is in order for all the wonderful people from around the world who helped me grow my collection.  I’ve had help from U.S., Poland, U.K, France, Germany, and even Thailand.   You know who you are folks, and you know how much I appreciate you.  Thank You!
  Readers should note that I am not yet done collecting loupes, and am always looking for examples that I don’t have. 

  If you have an old focusing loupe made of metal, and you don’t see it in this post or its companion, please do send me a picture of it; I would be glad to tell you whether I have it or not, and if  I don’t have it I’d love to talk sale or trade.  Of course I’m not counting on being able to find every variation of every generation loupe made by every company ever, but I’d like to grow my collection by another 42% or so before I can call it quits for good.  With a bit of help from decent kind people that goal isn’t as unattainable as it may seem.

  Brief History and Development of Ground Glass Focusing Loupes is a companion post to this one, and can be found by clicking HERE


Brief History and Development of Ground Glass Focusing Loupes

  This post is dedicated to a very helpful yet often-overlooked photographic accessory.  After scouring the web, at this point I have only been able to find few brief entries dedicated to those devices, so I hope my writing will be found helpful by inquisitive minds interested in history of photo equipment. 

  Tintypes Made Using Focusing Loupes as Lenses is a companion post to this one.  Capturing images in this exact manner is something that to my knowledge has not been done before, though of course I am always ready to be proven otherwise. 

From 1872 book 'Ferrotypes And How To Make Them'

  My passion for vintage large format focusing loupes was sparked by a visit to Will Dunniway’s home about seven years ago.  A pillar within wet collodion community, Will Dunniway was kind and generous, with a real passion for history and craft of wet plate process.  During my first very brief visit to Will’s, I noticed a display cabinet on his wall, which was filled with beautiful little brass gems.  At that point I only had one loupe, acquired in early 2013 from the estate of late Ernst Purdum, who was famous in photo circles for his extensive knowledge of photographic shutters and their history and mechanical development.  After his passing, Mr. Purdum’s massive estate ended up in a second hand retail shop.  It was from there that I picked up my first  loupe by Taylor Taylor & Hobson loupe.   My main interest has always been in producing images, and knowledge of equipment needed to fulfill particular results is therefore essential but not central; other than admiring it’s minty finish, didn’t think much of my first little loupe, until my eyes caught sight of that cabinet at Will’s place.  When I got home, I searched about the web to see what was available on this topic, but my inquest came up woefully short.  This lack of information acted to further strengthen my resolve to learn as much as possible, and to share my findings with the world.  Through the years, I visited Will’s place a number of times, and purchased or traded for more than a few choice pieces from that cabinet.   Sadly, Will passed away on April 8th of this year.  I was thinking of waiting to make this post until I reach 10 years of collecting, but decided to rather do so now in memory of Will Dunniway, may he rest in peace. 

Will Dunniway collection as seen years ago 

 Challenges of gathering antique brass loupes and information about them are as follows.  First off, they are generally small, and to someone who is not an avid large format photographer it’s not obvious what they are, so vast majority of loupes must have gotten lost or tossed out when someone died and their relatives wouldn’t know what they were. Lets face it, half of that small percentage of photographers who even shoot large format today would likely not recognize some of these for what they are.  Secondly, most of them have no engraving or stamp, and those that do vey rarely mention anything other than the maker, so sellers have a hard time describing them precisely.  More than one maker made not just different iterations of their loupes, but in each generation there would have been 3 or more various sizes offered, and so there’s thin hope for assembling an entire line of 6 or 9 variants.  Add to that the fact that there are a myriad other types of loupes out there, and the fact that a lot of other small optical pieces could easily be confused for loupes and would actually function as such to some degree.  Even in Will’s cabinet pictured above, of 36 objects seen 10 are in fact not loupes at all, but this will be addressed later.  


  Just what is a ground glass focusing loupe, and how is it different from other similar objects?  By definition, ground glass focusing loupes are made specifically to aid photographers with bringing the image upon their large format camera ground glass to critical focus point.  To ease this crucial task, photographers at times use a countless number of DIY magnifiers and gadgets, but nothing beats a well-made loupe designed for that exact job.  These loupes should be able to focus sharply at a distance of about 2mm from the bottom edge.  A ground glass focusing loupe also has a completely opaque body, which blocks stray light and brightens the image.  Their magnifying power varies from around 4x to 8x and even 10x, though most seem to be at about 6x.  Since the ground side of the glass is perfectly flat, most makers went through the trouble of making sure their loupes have a relatively flat field of focus, something that isn’t as crucial in botanical magnifiers for example.  

  I’ll quickly note here that as far as actual use a lot of other things can replace an actual true ground glass loupe; loupes made for negative examination are nearly identical in all respects, map reading magnifiers and even hand-held loupes can be used.  19th century magnifiers for botanical specimens often also very closely resemble focusing loupes, and can focus in the correct plane. I have used center group from Canon 28-80mm lenses as high power magnifiers, and with one camera I purchased came a thing someone made from a film canister and a single element with some enlarging power glued into it, and that thing also worked to show the image larger.  I feel that a lot of photographers may actually resort to using all sorts of substitutes simply because they may not even be aware that specific focusing aid loupes do in fact exist, and so I hope this post helps out. 

  Variety wise, photo loupes seem to have been not as plentiful as lenses, cameras, and other equipment; after all, they were meant to do one thing only, and how many ways can one achieve that rather straightforward task?  Still however, there’s more than enough to explore and marvel at.

  Simplest photographic loupes have no focus adjustment at all, or basically a minimal capacity for that, with top glass on a thread, which can be unscrewed a bit.  These loupes usually have just one element, and image quality is not exactly great. Next level up have a way to slide central part up or down, to adjust for personal eye sight of each photographer, as well as to change focal plane to ground glass of different thicknesses.  Better ones will have either a sliding or turning central adjustable part, which is then locked in place. 

No focus, focus with no lock, focus and lock

  Simplest way to have a loupe be able to focus of course is one tube sliding within another one; only simple precise machining is required for a fairly tight fit.  For more control, some companies made that central part have a spiral or even a full-fledged thread; this makes adjustment more precise, but the finer the thread is more turns it takes to get it to where you want it.   A more complex mechanism involved a guiding pin placed on outer surface of inner barrel, and a slightly spiral channel in outer body part for that pin to ride inside (though of course that channel was hidden buy outer skirt).  This is a very smooth and exact way of achieving focus, but indeed it required a whole bunch more machining and assembly, so not a lot of loupes exhibit it. 

Types of central columns

  To lock that central sliding part in place of correct focus, most loupes have a threaded ring on outer part of the body.  As that ring is screwed down, it presses inward upon carefully cut wings, and that locks central column in place. Some makers resorted to a simpler setting screw.  Yet others had their loupes focus via a long thread that had a stop-ring on same thread.

Types of locking systems 

Glass configuration varied drastically; from simple one-glass magnifiers akin to hand-held reading aid, to complex systems with cemented crown and flint glass elements.  Most good models have a single element on top, and a cemented double at bottom.  More complex loupes had complex achromatic groupings of elements both on top and bottom.  Below at left are elements with a spacer from Waterbury loupe, and at right are three cemented elements by Goerz. 

Two glass configurations

  Just like lenses and cameras, loupes were also rebranded, and multiple retailers often sold exact same ones.  Some loupes may have been sold without company engraving, while others were finished differently.  For example a Hansa loupe is identical to Zeiss Ikon, except Hansa has an incredible enamel finish and is made of brass rather than aluminum that Zeiss went with.  Did Hansa buy rights for that deign or did they have Zeiss make them a batch from a metal they considered better, and then enameled them in Japan?  Hard to tell now, but they surely are related.  Dallmeyer seems to have copied Ross loupes almost completely except for making them shorter, Montauk ones are identical to those marked Waterbury, Busch loupes were also sold by various retailers engraved with their own labels, etc.

Rebranding samples

  It’s usually rather difficult to determine date of manufacture with these objects.  They are rarely marked in any way, and of those that have an engraving few have a serial number, which is also near impossible to trace for vast majority of vintage manufacturers.  Endlessly searching though old catalogs can at times give a glimpse of which configuration of the loupe was made in which decade by which company, but some makers kept their loupes the same for decades, while others have no catalogs available for search online.   After a while of working with antique brass lenses, one can start seeing similarities in progression of types of brass and lacquer used by makers, and that can be used to place a loupe within this decade or another with relative degree of accuracy.

 I believe one of the oldest loupes in my collection is probably the Scovill Focusing Glass pictured below at left.   It seems that they haven’t changed their form from early 1860s through 1880s, and so this loupe in theory can be from any year in that period, but basically it’s the same ‘60s loupe.   In the middle is a loupe seen in LaVerne catalogs from France, and it seems it was imported and sold by Edward Anthony as well; it dates from mid-1870.  Judging by machining and type of brass and lacquer used, Darlot loupe on the right is also likely from either late 60s or early 70s.  I’m not certain when Ross or Dallmeyer started making their loupes, so I didn’t include those in this group of old-timers. 

Scovill, Anthony, and Darlot

  Parisian lens maker Hermagis is credited with inventing spiral shaped central columns, which make the process of tuning the loupe to your eyes very precise.  Some of their loupes have no spiral, but instead employ the guide-pin system; I’m assuming those are later type, but am looking for find even one of those in an actual catalog for verification.  Some of their models are plain brass finish, some black lacquer, and some bodied came covered in leather. 

  The spiral central column design was copied endlessly through Europe, and no-name examples of these are probably the most common of all loupes to come up for sale.   All spiral loupes I’ve seen sport a single element on top and cemented double at bottom.  It’s possible that the central spiral tube was bought in standard length, and then, if top and bottom glass needed to be moved apart a bit more, a ring of appropriate height was soldered onto the spiral.  Occasionally an example with much finer thread is seen in the wild, but for the most part the spiral is nearly identical through many models and makes.   

Hermagis and 'Hermagis Type'

  Darlot loupe design was kept around almost unchanged for at least 30 years, and it also sprung a bunch of nameless copies.  Other companies even advertised their loupes as ‘Darlot Type’. Darlot brass type and lacquer finish changed through the years, very much consistent with their lens bodies from same time periods.  Below are a Darlot loupe that was likely made around mid 1880s, and three examples of other makers copying same general design.

Darlot and 'Darlot Type'

Most loupes are between 40mm and 60mm when closed, and extend by 10-20mm, average weight of about 100-150g.   Space is often a consideration for photographers on the go though, so some loupes were made in miniature sizes.  This makes them even more susceptible to being lost of course and the image is tiny, but in a pinch they work quite well.  Below example of an early E. Krauss loupe is only 30mm tall, and weighs 54g.  If space is in fact of absolutely no concern, and if one really wants to get the widest field of view while having a marvelous object in their hand, then the obvious only choice is the Grande Model loupe by Hermagis.  This mid-188s giant weighs in at 235g, and stands 105mm tall when extended.

Grande Model and early E.Krauss

  Hermagis deserves another quick mention here.  Ground glass can be scratched by the bottom metal edge of loupes.  To prevent this, on one of their models, Hermagis inlaid a ring of whale baleen in most careful and beautiful manner.  This is the only example lined with baleen I have seen.  Later loupes were made of plastic, but among brass-bodied loupes this may have been the only meaningful effort to protect the glass from scratches, and what an elegant effort it was. 

Baleen lining in Hermagis loupe

For clear focus, bottom edge of loupe is placed squarely against the ground glass, with line of sight being at 90 degrees to glass. At times, the spot you want to check focus on is a bit lower or higher than the angle you can comfortably bring your eye to, and a few companies gave their lopes the ability to tilt, so you can look into it from above or below.  Notice that they tilt around the central axis of bottom plane, because that is where the focus is adjusted for ground glass depth; if you just keep one point of the edge on the glass, focus plane will be lifted, and your loupe will be totally out of focus. 

Tilting Darlot and E. Krauss

  Another problem one sometimes encounters in the field is checking critical focus along the very edge of ground glass, because it is usually sunken into the wood or metal frame around it by a millimeter or two, so edge of your loupe hits that edge.  This sole example by Taylor’ Taylor & Hobson, with its lovely patina, combats this problem by having a small cutout in bottom edge, which allows it to stay perpendicular to the glass while going over the frame wood.  In theory, tilting loupes seen in above picture can also answer the call, because their center can also be brought closer to the edge than most. 

Taylor Taylor & Hobson with cutout

  I think that the first time anyone who ever glanced upon the ground glass of a regular large format camera, they may have been a bit confused by the image being upside down and left to right reversed.   After having worked with LF cameras for over 20 years, I now see what my college professors were saying about the benefits of this.  Having an image reversed serves in some subliminal way to detach the ground glass image from what is actually happening in front of the lens, so lines, tones, and other compositional elements stand on their own, uncoupled from reality by being inversed.   Not everyone shares this sentiment, and so we all know of those large reversing prisms that go behind ground glass and orient the image correctly from at least top to bottom by the use of a mirror.   Some loupe makers attempted to offer photographers that same solution by adding an extra element between the two groups, and having that element reverse the image in both directions.  

  Using a loupe like that is actually not as fun as it may seem.  First off their magnifying power is really high, so you end up seeing too much of the actual gran structure of your ground glass. Plus area of view is also rather limited, so you have to move it around lot to find where those point of interest are.  When I tried using these loupes, I could not for the life of me get used to having the image slide upward as I’m moving the loupe down, and also it makes you want to move it in the wrong direction to begin with.  Still, it’s a novel innovation worth mentioning. 

Image reversing loupes

  With the advent of smaller cameras in late 1890s and through 1930s, there came to be a lot of folding cameras that still had a ground glass on back, but were meant to be hand-held.  Holding the camera, focusing it, and also holding a loupe against the glass is a trick that only select Hindu gods can perform with ease, but for those of us with only two hands, some companies had a bright idea to make tips of their loupes into little rubber suction cups.  I imagine this worked pretty well when they were new, but those early forms of rubber would become hard and very brittle after a while, and so all those loupes now have that rubber either missing completely, or it’s hard as a rock, and usually with cracks and chips missing. 

Suction cup loupes

 Those smaller cameras also often had a leather hood that would pop up to reveal the ground glass and shield it from stray light.  In more modern cameras, Graflex has a metal shade in back.  Getting your hand with a loupe in there is nearly impossible, and so a longer loupe is very handy in those situations.  Aside from the collapsible example shown above, 1950s Ednalite answers the task very well, though I can’t say it’s the sharpest loupe on the shelf.  There are also quite a few examples to be found by Wista, and, provided that the glass is reinserted correctly after cleaning, which wasn’t the case with mine when I first received it, it’s actually a very sharp loupe.

Long body loupes

  Some loupes came with a provision for their own little ground glass, which would slide onto or screw to the bottom side.  Turn that ground glass toward you, and you can actually focus on the scene in front of you, which basically serves as a quick preview viewfinder. Provided that you’re shooting with about a ‘normal focal length’ lens, this can aid you in selecting a good spot to set up the camera.  It’s a bit of a gimmick, as the image is small and not easy to see, but it’s the nifty thought that counts.  Seeing the first loupe with such attachment is what gave me the idea of making a series of images by using loupes as lenses. 

Loupes with viewfinder attachments

  Loupes are among the smallest of objects in a large format photographer’s bag, but it’s also pretty handy to always have it by your side without fear of losing it.   Hence the old solution of putting a neck strap on whatever you need rapid access to.  Surprisingly, not a lot of loupes actually came with neck strap provisions, and in those that did the string loop is often missing.

Neck strap loops

  Vintage focusing loupes are hard to find in general, and so to come upon them with original carrying cases is a great treat.  Only about 10% of my collection have original cases, and below are a few examples.  Some were supplied in a Moroccan leather cases akin to those for Waterhouse stops cases, others made paper or pressed board boxes.  At some point in time, TT&H chose to make their cases from thin wood veneer.  Some cases were hard and lined with velvet in a formed shape, while others were but a suede satchel.  Limpet loupes, which originally had both a rubber end and a circular ground glass that could be inserted into that rubber, came in a thin tin canister. 

Various original cases

 Being worried about losing one of the vintage ones, in the field I use a Nikon 7x and in studio my go to is this Sima, made in West Germany back when there was such a country. Both of them are exceptionally sharp, though some of the better antique examples aren’t far off quality wise either.  In the past I’ve tried a few Peak and Wista loupes, and they were very well made.  I assume Horseman wouldn’t have made a bad loupe, but I never did hold one in hand. 

More modern loupes

  I think this about covers most all loupe variants I came across.  For the sake of those who are just learning, I feel I should add a brief word of caution.  In the past few years, interest in loupes seems to have grown tenfold.  Not sure if this is due to some great influx of large format photographers with poor eyesight, or maybe the fact that over that time every once in a while I would put out open calls for them on social media.  Either way, prices have tripled if not more, though some sellers actually don’t try and gouge and keep things at reasonable prices. In latest development, careless sellers are misbranding things that aren’t loupes at all, whether knowingly or not.  For example, it’s relatively easy to see that a toy magic lantern lens isn’t a loupe, but with just a bit of an imagination stretch, their ability to focus on needed plane of ground glass can spell Euro signs as far as sales. Meant for eventual destruction by playful and maybe less than attentive children, these objects are cheaply made of very thin metal, with simple glass being held in place by a spring.  They do happen to focus on the ground glass, but aren’t lockable and the image is much more poor than in good examples of actual ground glass loupes.  Microscope eyepieces also sometimes happen to focus just in the right plane to work.  I actually wrote here that I have so far not seen those sold as loupes, but right as I was editing this post, indeed one shown in a collage below appeared on eBay; it’s not brass, it’s not a loupe, and that seller should know better.  A seller in France appears to have a monocular mislabeled as a loupe, and it’s been on eBay for at least a few years now. I tried multiple times to confirm whether that’s a loupe or not, but he never did answer his messages.

Not ground glass focusing loupes

  I would like to extend a great deal of gratitude not only to the late Will Dunniway, but to all those who helped my collection though the years.  I couldn’t have done this in such a relatively short time without support of dedicated loupe hunters scattered around the globe.  Their selfless generosity stands in stark contrast to blind competitiveness observed elsewhere. You know who you are folks, and the world is a better place with you in it. Thank you!   

  Oh, and a good collection is never finished. I wouldn’t want to give an impression that I am done hunting for examples that I don’t yet have.  In fact, I ask any kind reader who thinks they may have a vintage loupe that I don’t have to email me, and I would be glad to talk of possible purchase or trade.

  Thanks for reading, and again, here's a link to the post about Tintypes Made Using Focusing Loupes As Lenses.


Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Death Valley Daguerreotypes With Grandma

  Last week I had a pleasure of taking my grandma, who is turning 90 this year, on a short trip to Death Valley.  She has wanted to see it for years, and twice even made solid plans to go there with her friends, but both times plans fell through, and so this time we weren’t taking any chances.

  My grandmother had a long and hard life.  Born in Siberia, her Jewish family moved to Moscow shortly before WWII, and so at the age of 10 she was among those evacuated from the capitol as German forces were advancing.  After the war, they returned to the ruins of the city, and my grandma went to dentistry school, working in a clinic for the next 40+ years.  A small detail makes those distant years a bit more tangible; even while living in Moscow, they didn’t have running water or in-home heating until late 1960s, when they moved into a newly built apartment, my mother was going into 6th grade at the time.  In early 90s, along with all of us, she watched as the country she was born in and to which she dedicated all her life fall apart and splinter, and then our small family immigrated to the US at when she was 64, and so she had to learn a whole new language and culture. She's a strong resilient woman, who survived poverty and atrocity, and managed to have a supportive circle of friends all through her life.  

  When I was a kid, it was my grandma who took me on most of my travels and vacations.  The amount of time and nerves she spent attending to this troublesome child go uncounted, and so showing her Death Valley was a personal treat and honor.   As you can imagine, the long drive was filled with fascinating stories of the days of yore, where I learned a bit more about my ancestors, and I’ll treasure those plates.

  One such story I feel deserves to be written here in brief form.  My grandfather, from whom I caught the photo-fever when I was just 7 or 8 years old, fought in Soviet Army during WWII.  He enlisted when he was 19, and served in artillery unit.  When he was 21, he was badly by shrapnel from an ordinance, which went under the shield of his canon and stuck him in the shin, shattering it, and lodging pieced of metal deep within the bone itself.  While awaiting his cue for evaluation in the field hospital just behind front lines, he was told by a young medic to stop moaning from pain, because if he was deemed to be in really bad pain they would have just cut his leg off, while those not in agonizing pain were transported via train to hospitals deep in Russia’s interior, where better care was possible and the leg would have a better chance to be saved.  While en route east, that train, filled with wounded soldiers, happened to make a late-night layover stop at one of the railroad depots in Moscow for just a couple of hours.  With him, my grandpa carried a leather document satchel filled with cash he received as soldier’s pay from the military.   Upon hearing that he was briefly stopped in his home city, my grandpa handed all he earned to a nurse, in return for her making one phone call to his parents, who upon hearing the news did all they could and got him off that train, so he could be attended to closer to home and in a much better hospital than those deep within interior of USSR.  Now I know a bit better the story behind that scar on his left shin, which itched and bothered him for the rest of his life, because a few of the smaller shrapnel pieces were still there, as they were too deep in the bone to be extracted.  How lucky he was to have the leg saved and not be a complete shut-in, which is what most disabled people were forced to become in a society not at all set up with their needs in mind. After the war he went to film school, and worked as a camera operator at one of the Moscow studios, sometimes filling in other creative roles on smaller projects.  At home, he had an enlarger he bought shortly after graduating, and my intrigue for this process grew every time I saw him shoot a roll or two at a picnic during the day, then spending an hour or so in the one tiny bathroom of our apartment, and coming out with a wet contact sheet in a tray.  After my mom and grandma selected which frames were to be printed, he dove right back in there, and in a short time there were prints strewn about bedroom floors, drying on newspaper. It was that 1950s Soviet enlarger that I learned to print on when I was 12, a few years after his passing, and I’ll never forget working with it set up along with four trays on an ironing board balanced on a stool over the bathtub.  One had to be rather careful for the whole thing not to tumble over, but it was all worth it. 

 Being as obsessed with making images as I have been all my life, I couldn’t pass on the opportunity this trip was affording me to make daguerreotypes.  With main focus of this two-day trip being grandma’s comfort and entertainment, there wasn’t a ton of time left for making images, and so I only brought with me 10 plates.  It was a real treat to be showing my grandmother the whole process from start to finish, and she wouldn’t stop saying how she never thought it was so involved and labor-intensive.  A prospect of a good plate never did fail to make me enjoy every step in its preparation, and this time I was determined to make a daguerreotype of her, so I worked more diligently than ever. 

  First day, before heading out of the hotel, I fumed 4 of the 10 plates I had with me. After driving around the valley for most of the day, I developed the plates right before sunset, and was heartbroken to see that all of them were severely affected by the heat of Death Valley.  After all, it was about 36°C (98°F), and so even brief pauses in our mostly air-conditioned drive, allowed my plated to warm up much too much, thus all images were badly fogged.

  Next day the game plan was adjusted.  First off, to keep plates cool, I decided to employ an insulated bag with a couple of frozen dry-packs, plus some towels to soak up any moisture from condensation. I would fume 3 of the remaining 6 plates, shoot them in the morning, and then we would spend the hottest part of the day back in the room, where I could develop those 3 to see if things are going better.  That evening I planned on going up to Charcoal Kilns site, which I am very grateful my girlfriend showed me on our journey there a few months ago, and it was there that I wanted to make a portrait of grandma because of their historic significance.   

  I was elated to see that the first three images, one taken along Twenty Mule Team Road, and two on the way to there, all turned out to my full satisfaction.  The cooler bag worked wonders, and contrast was back.  I fumed the remaining three plates, and we headed up to Charcoal Kilns.  There, I briefly worried my grandma by climbing onto the roof of our rental car in order to get a better perspective for the plate of kilns by themselves. The light is difficult to judge at high elevation right during sunset, and so wanting to not miss my chance, I did two similar takes of grandma’s portrait.  Upon coming back to the hotel, I was once again over the moon to see that all three plates were as good as I could have hoped for them to be.  


 Presented below are all 6 images from that memorable day; starting with both plates of grandma, which were actually exposed last.  I must note here that the temptation to see the images completely finished had once again been too strong for me, and, ignoring the voice of my better judgment, I fixed and gilded all the plates right in the hotel, instead of waiting to get home to perform that wet part of the process in safety of known environment.  Gilding on location is never too wise of a step, and should be circumvented whenever possible, as contamination of any unfamiliar kind can spell disaster for the image.  This time I got fairly lucky, with only mild staining showing up in sky areas on some plates, but in the future I will do my very best to resist the gilding urge; there’s no harm in leaving developed daguerreotypes in a dark box for a day or few, and then finishing the process back home, in the confines of a familiar darkroom.

  Still though, what a great little trip it was. 

Grandma at Charcoal Kilns 1, 4x5 Daguerreotype

Grandma at Charcoal Kilns 2, 4x5 Daguerreotype

Death Valley Landscape 1, 4x5 Daguerreotype

Death Valley Landscape 2, 4x5 Daguerreotype

Along Twenty Mule Team Road, 4x5 Daguerreotype

Charcoal Kilns of Death Valley, 4x5 Daguerreotype