The Victorian Slum – BBC 2

Back in April I was asked if I could make some images as part of a BBC 2 show called “The Victorian Slum” for Wall to Wall Productions. They were also responsible for Time Crashers and Victorian Bakers which I’d worked on.

This time they had asked if I could produce images in the style of Horace Warner who was the photographer responsible for the Spitalfield Nippers body of work. I had explained that by this time dry plate was in use and even early flexible film. I could shoot in the “style of” but the wet plate process is a different beast altogether. This wasn’t an issue as it was the final images they were interested in and not the process.

I drove down to London the evening before, after finishing work, parked the car on site and got a taxi back to the hotel. Next morning was an early start on set.

I was was working out of the darkroom in the boot of the car, the forecast was good. The first test plate showed all was working as it should. Well, apart from my Fixer, which for some reason was acting very very slowly, even though it was freshly made. A frantic call to fellow photographer Robert Callaghan, who came to the rescue with a batch of his own.

As usual with these jobs theres a lot of waiting around, drinking tea and chatting, and then its all go for a few minutes and then all calm again.

Most of the plates were shot outdoors, the forecast had been for sunshine so I had just packed an f8 brass lens. Exposures were between 2 and 4 seconds. What I hadn’t counted on was, “Do you think we can take some plates inside?” I’m always up for a challenge, and luckily had my Darlot f4 in the car from a previous shoot. Lighting was very limited and exposures were 30 seconds to 1 minute. Ridiculously long for wet plate portraits, especially for those standing. Exposures should have been twice as long as that but I overdeveloped instead rather than risk lots of subject movement with an even longer exposure. This was when I was still experimenting with using my negative developer to develop positives and could get away with a certain ammount of over development….

We shot some great plates, the earlier ones being much better than the later ones taken indoors and any outdoors ones when the light was failing. It was a surprisingly hot day for April, hence the Tshirt (yes I know not historically correct) but I wasn’t supposed to be being filmed as far as I was aware. Note to self – do not leave your aluminium plates on top of the darkbox in a very hot car! Some of the later plates had some plastic residue left on them which I hadn’t noticed till I’d shot the plates.

All plates needed to be digitised and waxed on set for later in the days shooting. They turned out surprisingly well on screen.

Heres some screen grabs from last night episode and some of the digitised plates.

Full plate camera with universal iris and Dallmeyer f8 lens. I was shooting half plate tintypes.


Some plates weren’t used in the show but I’ve included them below.




This one was a particular favourite all round.




And this one, this was the first plate of the day.





This plate was taken indoors, exposure was something like 60 seconds.



This was last plate of the day. I had three attempts with this one and wasn’t happy with any of them. By now my darkroom was roasting, the adhesive on the plates was an issue and the sun was directly over the subject onto the lens. I can put all three of those in my “Big Book of Wet Plate Excuses”. Coming soon…


Another version…


Robert helping to dry plates ready for digitisation and waxing. Varnishing wasn’t and option as they had to be handled later that day.

Thank you Robert for all your help on the day and for the spare Fixer. Great to catch up with you over a pint after we’d finished.

Again a great experience, although always stressful when working with wet plate collodion under these situations, I’m amazed at how they make these shows. The Victorian Slum seems to have been very well received judging by social media coverage and rightly so, its a great series, very educational and as relevant today as it was 100 years ago.