The John Rylands Library – Wet Plates

As part of the Portrait of a Living Archive exhibition/event I was asked if I’d give a demonstration of the wet plate collodion process. I’m never one to turn down an opportunity to shoot some plates. So Saturday we set up in the historic entrance of the Library. It started of as a first come first served idea. People who agreed to sit for a portrait would be given a high resolution image of their plate, the plate itself getting deposited into the Libraries collections. Soon there was such a large number of people wishing to have their portraits taken that we had to start drawing names out of a top hat!

I was shooting quarter plate clear glass ambrotypes out of my portable darkroom suitcase. It was a little cramped for the whole plate holder (with inserts) but it worked fine.



My new clear fronted fixer tank in use so people can see the plate clearing rather than using a try.

Here are the plates… Thanks everyone for sitting so well. Eighteen very patient sitters in 6 hours.

I really enjoy discussing this process, everyone who stopped by was very interested and had loads of questions. Some people had come especially for the event and others were very happy to have stumbled upon it whilst visiting the Library.




It wasn’t until I saw these digital images that I now realise how fantastic the space we were working in was. I think I was far to busy to appreciate it on the day.



Thanks to Gwen, Jamie and the rest of the Library staff for all their help and making this a great event. Lets hope we can do another.

A little technical info…

I was using my whole plate Watson & Sons studio camera with 1/4 plate inserts. Lens was my Darlot cone lens f4. The troublesome collodion I was using on the day was the “Poe Boy” recipe mentioned in previous blog posts. I’m still not entirely happy with how its working as the developer doesn’t flow very well across the plate, even with additional alcohol added. The results were some of the “messiest” plates I’ve ever shot, some might call this “character”!? I’ll be going back to the “Old Workhorse” recipe but will be returning to Poe Boy as its the easiest to mix/get hold of the raw chems.

Supporting digital images © University of Manchester Library