This is my new camera.
I just purchased a replica sliding box camera with an authentic 1864 Darlot portrait lens, made in Paris, France.
That's right - 1864. When this lens was made, the Civil War was ongoing between the states, the first Catholic parish for Blacks was dedicated in Baltimore, outlaw Jesse James was riding in the Old West, and the first fish and chips shop opened in London.
The camera was masterfully crafted by Sam Reed of The Vacant Chair Photography Studio in White Bluff, Tennessee. He and his wife, Mary Lou, along with their daughter, Betsy, are collodion artists - what is called "wet plate" photography.
"Wet plate." As the name implies, this process means things have to stay wet. This was the process used to make tintypes and ambrotypes during the 1800's. To make an image, the photographer first coats a plate - thin japanned iron for tintypes, glass for ambrotypes - with a collodion solution. This creates a type of gel that allows a silver nitrate mixture to adhere to the surface, making it light sensitive. The plate is exposed in the camera - an exposure that can range anywhere from 3 seconds to 40 seconds, or longer, depending on how much light is available. The plate is then rushed to the darkroom and developed, finally being "fixed" in a bath of potassium cyanide, a very toxic chemical.
But . . . the result is magical. The images have an other-worldly quality to them, a people seem to go back in time. It is believed that the lens I have was originally used to make negatives of a vignetted portrait, which would then be used to make multiple albumen prints for what was called cartes de visite - small pictures often exchanged between friends or perhaps of a celebrity to keep as a souvenir of some event. As a result, the focus on the subject falls off to a swirled type of bokeh, a term referring to parts of an image that are intentionally blurred for aesthetic purposes.
In a word . . . sweet.
What makes a portrait like this special? First, it is truly one-of-a-kind. This cannot be a rushed process and the end result can be compared to an heirloom. The plate has its quirks and streaks that are simply part of the process. Also, certain types of physical characteristics show up in lovely and unique ways, such as dark-toned skin gleaming, or light hair and blue eyes appearing almost ghostly.
And . . . it is unlike an image made by a modern camera. This is the type of image for a couple who wants a rural feel to an engagement shot, for the senior portrait who wants the gritty and grungy look, or that bluegrass-and-rock band who needs a promotional shot or album cover to set them apart.
My first step is to set up a darkroom in my home studio. Once that is done, I can begin doing portraits there or in any place where I can have access to a room with a work area and a door that when closed produces no light leaks. After that, I will focus (pun intended) on building a dark box that will expand the locations where images can be made - basically, a darkroom in the back of my car - as well as search for other lenses that can expand the capabilities of the camera. I will make an announcement when the darkroom is open, but feel free to contact me now with your ideas and questions.
By the way, in the third picture above, you will note a small plaque that identifies this as Camera No. 5 made by Sam Reed. Its twin, Camera No. 4, was purchased by the Fox Talbot Museum in Wiltshire, England, located at Lacock Abbey. William Henry Fox Talbot was the English inventor who first made an image on paper using a negative - the view from a latticed window at the abbey - in 1841. And, in genial conversation after a day of shooting, we began to imagine perhaps this lens traveling from Paris to Mexico during the Franco-Mexican war and used to capture images there, and so it was decided that my camera would be christened "Lupe."
Let's go back in time!