Culture Magazine

Becoming Julia

By Kirsty Stonell Walker @boccabaciata
This week I am delighted to report I had a dream come true.  I became Julia Margaret Cameron.  For a day.  Well, sort of. On Friday I did a wet collodion process photography course at Dimbola Lodge, the Julia Margaret Cameron Museum...

Becoming Julia

Annie (1864) Julia Margaret Cameron

In December 1863, Julia Margaret Cameron's daughter and son in law gave her a present to occupy her.  She was 48 years old, her husband was away at the family coffee estates in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and her children had grown up.  It was felt that the enthusiastic Mrs Cameron needed something to absorb a little of her boundless energy. This came in the form of a camera. Despite claiming in her memoir Annals of My Glass House (1874/1889) that she began her career in photography 'with no knowledge of the art', she had spent some time with the Swedish phtographer Oscar Gustave Rejlander in 1863, and her brother-in-law was the amateur photographer Lord Somers.  What is true is that Julia's first solo success in the art of photography was an image of a local girl, Annie Philpot. This marked not only the success in producing the plate but also of printing a photograph from it.  Having experienced the excitement and frustration of producing a wet collodion plate, I now understand her delight...

Becoming Julia

Plate One: The Doomed Polar explorer, or Toby's Mate

Becoming Julia

Plate Two: A Ghost of Lissa

So, my friends, here is my day at Dimbola Lodge.  I was taught how to do this magical process by John Walker, a jolly fine teacher indeed.  The weather was at first very cold and misty, and the light was diffused and weak. When we set up the studio space, the exposure needed seemed to be around two minutes.  We grabbed a chap to sit for us and set up the scene before going to coat the plate.  When we came to expose the plate and capture the image, the sun came out, brief and strong, over-exposing the plate and causing the image to become ghost-like and bleached.  The same happened again when the lovely Lissa sat for the second plate.  At this point a fair amount of fiddling with shades happened and the exposure time was halved.  The result was startlingly better...

Becoming Julia

Plate Three: The Lovely Lissa

(Please excuse the shine off the glass plate, it's really hard not to get a reflection)
Anyway, as you can see, the reduction in the exposure makes the image suddenly appear.  Feeling more confident, John and I moved the camera nearer and the lovely Lissa was patient enough to put up with me for a bit longer.

Becoming Julia

Victorian photographer in his darkroom

Now the technical bit: First thing to do when taking photographs in this way is to clean your plate.  Polish, polish, polish until it squeaks and sparkles.  Then the plate is delicately balanced on the fingertips of your right-hand while a cotton bud coated in egg white is whisked around the edges.  This stops the collodion mixture from running off. Collodion, a wicked mixture of very toxic chemicals including ether, is then poured onto the center and the plate delicately tipped to cover the surface, like coating a baking tray with oil.  The excess is shaken off into a bottle.  This bit is smelly indeed. The wet plate is then immersed into a bath of silver nitrate, to sensitise it to light, for three minutes.  With a  minute to go, the lights in the dark room are turned off, leaving only the red lights on, so that your eyes can get used to the darkness.  When the three minutes are up, the plate is lifted out, the silver nitrate wiped from the back of the plate and the sensitive plate placed into wooden holder, kept dark by a wooden slide until exposure.

Becoming Julia

Plate camera (minus lens) - not pocket-sized but very gorgeous

The setting of the picture had been established before the plate was prepared.  Having a quick check that no-one had moved while sneakily checking their mobile phone, the wooden plate holder is then placed into the camera.  A cover is placed over the lens at the front (we used a bowler hat as a lens cap).  The dark slide is taken from the plate holder and when ready, the cover is removed from the lens.  After a minute (or however long exposure is needed for) the lens cap is swiftly replaced and the dark slide slid back in to seal up the plate holder.  That box is removed and taken down to the darkroom immediately.
The plate is removed from the holder and held sensitive side up.  Developer is quickly poured over the image and the image magically appears.  This is the bit that defeated me and I always missed a small patch. You have to quickly and evenly pour a medicine cup of the liquid down one edge while tilting the plate in semi-darkness.  Then the washing begins.  Jugs of water are poured over the plate then it is immersed in a bath of water, then another bath of developing fluid after which it is safe to turn on the light.  The plate is then washed again and finally left to dry on a rack.  
When the plate is dry, varnish can be poured over the image (much like the collodion is poured) and left near strong heat to dry.  In our case we used a plate warmer.  Julia used a spirit lamp, which seeing how flammable everything involved is, makes it a miracle that nothing appalling occurred. Added to this she used cyanide as a fixing agent, which due to the risks involved, you can now replace with something less deadly.  Cyanide gives a warmer amber glow to the resultant image but the modern alternative is less death-laden, which has to be a good thing.  It is suggested that Julia's use of cyanide, which inevitably ends up on your skin, may have shortened her life.  I wore gloves and stuck to the flammable but less certain-death chemicals. Wash your hands, wear gloves, lick nothing and you'll be fine.
So finally I got the hang of it, after a fashion and the last plate of the day was a moment of utter joy when the developer revealed it...

Becoming Julia

Lissa, my very first success in photography...

As you can see, I managed to miss part of Lissa's right arm with the developer, but her lovely face came out perfectly.  I could not have been more delighted, relieved and exhausted. After varnishing the plate my day was complete.  As a souvenir of my marvelous day, I now have a set of wonderful glass plate negatives which look like the above when placed against a black piece of card, but appear as negatives when lifted up...

Becoming Julia

Lissa in negative

I felt like I had peeked into a part of Julia's life and walked in her shoes, if only for a few hours. The whole process was consuming and involved even with modern conveniences like running water so goodness knows how much time, energy and effort went into producing Julia's pictures.  However, when the results were as perfect as her masterpieces, I cannot think of a more rewarding employment of time.
My heartfelt thanks go to the staff of Dimbola Lodge, especially John Walker and the lovely Lissa.  If you too want to have a go at wet collodion photography, contact the museum (see the website here).

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