We are republishing features on some of the returning makers for 2017. This piece first went up on 03.31.16. Stay tuned for features on our new exhibitors!
Tony Sehgal of Ag RXN Photography (Ag=Silver, RXN= Reaction) describes his artistic work as painting with light. Tony practices the lost art of wet plate collodion photography, invented in 1851 and surpassed by other forms of photography by the early 1880s. Unsure what wet plate photography is? Just think back to the photographs of the American Civil War, which was one of the first efforts of photojournalism, and you will get the idea.
Tony has been a photographer his whole life. He studied documentary filmmaking at Stanford after completing an undergraduate degree in biology, so the science behind the wet plate process doesn’t intimidate him. He started in photography using film and then moved onto digital, but he missed the tactile aspects of photography and felt that digital focused exclusively on the end result and was missing a sense of craftsmanship.
When looking to go back to analog photography for a hands-on experience, Tony discovered the wet plate process, a medium that requires a great amount of craftsmanship, hands on manipulation of materials and a close collaboration with his subjects. Each photo takes about 15 minutes to produce when things are going smoothly, plus additional time to varnish the image for long term preservation.
Tony’s photos are taken with an 8×10 view camera and a brass lens which dates back to the late 19th century, so the lens he uses could have been witness to some very interesting historical events. The process is quite complex and requires ongoing maintenance of chemistry and materials and requires years to master.
Tony’s meticulous process starts in his mobile darkroom. Photos are taken on aluminum plates (tintypes) as well as clear or colored glass (ambrotypes). Before Tony can take a photo he must prepare his plate. He starts by coating the plate with a thin layer of collodion which is used as the photographic emulsion. During the Civil War, collodion was also used as a liquid bandage in the battle field. The plate is then submerged in a bath of silver nitrate where salts in the collodion react with the silver nitrate, forming light sensitive compounds. After a few minutes, the plate is now light sensitive and transferred to a film holder that will be placed in the view camera. Before the plate can be inserted into the camera, the image must be composed and focused because the plate obstructs the view through the lens. Once the plate is in the holder, the image must be taken within 5-10 minutes before it dries out, hence the term “wet plate” photography.
The exposure in outdoor shade is between 3-5 seconds, so a head brace is often used to keep portrait subjects from moving. Tony then rushes back to his darkroom where the plate is developed, washed and then fixed. During the fixing process, unexposed silver is removed from the plate and the image miraculously appears. When properly done, wet plate images will last for hundreds of years. Authentic wet plate images from the 1850s can be found in excellent condition.
Tony takes beautiful portraits, and is currently working on a portrait project about veterans of recent wars. He also takes portraits at living history events while pursuing an ongoing project on the Golden Gate Bridge. His wet plate photography will be exhibited at the Santa Clara County Library in Saratoga, September through October 2016.
Interested in wet plate photography? Come by to talk with him about the process and be sure to have your portrait taken. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity! http://www.agrxn.com/