Pinhole and Wet Plate Photography: Traditional techniques at the Open Eye Gallery / by Andrew Wilson

I find traditional analogue photography processes fascinating, especially in this digital age where we can see a photograph on the back of our cameras or phones in an instant. There's something mysterious and exciting about taking a photo and not knowing exactly what you have until it develops in front of your eyes. When I read that the Open Eye Gallery  (located in the Mann Island buildings at Liverpool's Pier Head) were hosting several processes as part of their Festive Photo Fayre I decided I would check them out, in particular pinhole and wet plate photography. 

David Abberley, an employee of Harman Technology for 33 years, delivered a detailed and clear presentation about the history of pinhole photography, Harman and Ilford. Ilford is arguably the best selection of analogue photographic materials (film, chemicals, paper) and so it was interesting to get further information about the chemical process from someone who understands this process at an advanced level.

The presentation from David proved to be a helpful introduction to pinhole photography before we took part in the workshop. David supplied us with Ilford's Obscura pinhole camera, loaded with light sensitive paper, so we could go out and create some paper negatives.

David Abberley from Ilford Photo talking us through the workshop.

The weather was pretty gloomy and wet on this particular Saturday afternoon, so combining this with the tiny hole of the camera, David estimated a 20 minute exposure time using his pinhole exposure wheel. 

So out we went into the rain. I placed the camera facing a spot where I noticed the Museum of Liverpool meeting a part of a Mann Island building, creating an angular shape.

This is where I set up the Obscura pinhole camera.

The pinhole lever lifted exposing the hole in the centre.

Once the 20 minutes was up I took my camera back inside so the paper negative (still perfectly dry!) could be developed in a makeshift darkroom.  As my negative slowly developed before my eyes I was pleased to see that it looked promising!

Whilst negatives were drying off we made a little wooden pinhole camera that we could take away with us. I'll look forward to taking mine for a spin in the future! 

Our wooden pinhole cameras.

Once the negatives were dry we made direct positives from the paper negatives in the darkroom. The process works the same as creating prints from film negatives, and as before the positive appeared as if by magic! I was happy with how it turned out, and as usual with a process like this, it was interesting to see how other people approached the same activity and to see their photos.

My paper negative.

My paper positive.

Once the workshop had wrapped up Hannah and I checked out wetplate photography by John Brewer aka The Victorian Photographer. John started doing this process about 10 years ago and currently has a studio set up in Manchester. 

With his team of assistants he had an impressive setup. The portrait was set up by looking through the camera's viewfinder where the projected image is flipped vertically and horizontally. 

John's large-format camera and Petzval lens.


The hat is used as a shutter over the lens when the plate is exposed inside the camera.


Setting up the camera with the Hannah.


The flipped and reversed projected image on the viewfinder. This is how John sees the image.


Whilst this was happening a metal plate was coated with a light sensitive emulsion inside a makeshift darkroom-tent. The plate (we went for 5x7") would then be placed inside a light-proof casing before being brought out of the darkroom to the large-format camera.

Where the chemistry happens - the makeshift darkroom-tent.

Then came the all-important moment to take the photo! We had to keep still for about 8 seconds as the plate exposed and took our photograph. Fortunately blinking isn't captured by this slow exposure...that would have been a long 8 seconds otherwise!

Once the plate was sealed back inside the light-proof case we got to see the plate being developed inside the darkroom-tent. That same darkroom magic brought the image to life on the plate as we were told it was one of the best exposures of the day - I call that saving the best till last! The plate was then dried and waxed for protection. We were very pleased with how it turned out. The metallic nature of the plate gives the photo a different feel to prints on paper that my digital photo doesn't quite do justice to. It will be a great piece to frame and hang in our place.

Our portrait. Those years of standing still for seconds at a time paid off for me, not so much for Hannah!

 I really enjoyed my day at the Open Eye Gallery and certainly look forward to checking out more workshops and events like these. The darkroom magic also made me think I need to get back to  doing some creative analogue photography next year - watch this space!

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