How It's Done with Salt, Silver and Sun

Most of us know how to take a photo. We have the technology nestled in our pockets, ready to document any moment of our lives. What we may not know is how painstaking photography can be, especially when used as more than documentation. While often considered a medium apart from the “fine art” of painting and sculpture, photography has grown to encompass everything from preteens snapping selfies to serious artists working with dangerous chemicals. Salt, Silver and Sun contains examples of many processes that may seem mysterious to the casual visitor. Just seeing such a variety of images gives an idea of the myriad of photographic processes in use today, but a full understanding of the process shows the incredible creativity and forward thinking of photographic pioneers. The recent revival of interest in photography’s historic processes explores the medium’s roots and reestablishes the process as a distinct form of fine art. Here is a quick overview of two techniques represented in the show:

The vivid reflection on John A. Monroe's daguerrotype exemplifies another reason printing on polished metal fell out of vogue. Pictured: Figure Study (left) and Customs House, Portland, ME (right).

The vivid reflection on John A. Monroe's daguerrotype exemplifies another reason printing on polished metal fell out of vogue. Pictured: Figure Study (left) and Customs House, Portland, ME (right).

Daguerreotype.

Widely considered the first form of photography, the daguerrotype was discovered by Parisian commercial artist Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre in the early 1800s. Images are printed on copper plates coated in polished silver made light sensitive by a chemical reaction between silver, iodine and bromide on the surface. The plate is placed in a camera and submitted to a relatively lengthy exposure time. The image is developed by placing the plate face-down over heated mercury, which forms a vapor that reacts with the silver iodide. A fixing solution removes the iodide, thus the light sensitivity, and the plate is processed further for strength. Daguerreotypes are fragile, and traditionally use specially made cases to keep them safe, and the images they produce are beautifully detailed. After a short daguerrotype craze, discoveries regarding the safety of mercury (note: it is not safe) and the rise of cheaper, more durable alternatives pushed the process to the fringes of photographic society. 

Crow Canyon Petroglyphs Navajo Dinetah, a tintype collodion print by Cole Caswell on the left and Untitled, one of G. Brieche's collodion prints on paper show a perfect juxtaposition of the use of metal and paper.

Crow Canyon Petroglyphs Navajo Dinetah, a tintype collodion print by Cole Caswell on the left and Untitled, one of G. Brieche's collodion prints on paper show a perfect juxtaposition of the use of metal and paper.

Wet Collodion Print.

Closer to the well-known silver gelatin process, collodion photographs print onto paper from a glass “negative.” A glass plate is polished and thoroughly cleaned, then coated with a solution of collodion mixed with other chemicals, aged for about a week. In a darkroom the plate is bathed in silver nitrate, which adheres to the collodion and renders the plate highly light-sensitive. The wet plate goes into a light-tight plate holder, and the image is composed and focused before the plate goes into the camera. The photographer removes a panel in the plate holder and the lens cap on the camera to expose the plate. Back in the darkroom the photographer reveals the image with developer, rinsing it with water to arrest the development. The plate is placed in a fixer bath, rinsed again, and finally varnished for protection. This process is completed in a single sitting, usually around fifteen minutes. To print the images, the photographer coats paper in light-sensitive material, places the glass plate “negative” over it, and exposes it to light. The need for an immediately accessible darkroom makes collodion prints less popular for casual photographers, though the images produced have a luster well suited to fine art photography. The collodion process has many variants which can be seen in the show at PhoPa including tintypes, in which a tin plate is used instead of glass, and ambrotypes, in which glass plates are set against a black background to reveal a positive image. 

The Getty Museum and Trust published a series of documents giving in-depth information on different forms of photography, available here. If you want to get your hands dirty, Brenton Hamilton, guest curator of Salt, Silver and Sun, teaches historical processes at Maine Media Workshops + College.

The magic of Salt, Silver and Sun is the insight into different forms of photography, opening a window to a world usually reserved for historians and enthusiasts. The atmosphere and ambiguous reality of the pieces on display at PhoPa emphasize the medium’s ability to transcend its roots as a truthful representation of reality and emerge as an established form of visual communication.