Photography: Anna Morell experiences the Victorian art of wet collodion portrait making

Wet collodion portrait, girl with leaf by Rikard Osterland

A sliver of metal in a pocket. A lens the size of a lentil. Press, hold, burst. You are now the owner of tens of images, data, intangible, deletable, recreatable, at the touch of a button.

The process of photography has been lost. For those of us in the last throes of our youth, even those carefully eked out rolls of films (the results of which now lie between the yellowing pages of gently dog-eared albums) would be developed into an abundant twenty-four or thirty-six hit and miss images (a couple of retakes to allow for the odd blink or rictus), the rolls sent away in pre-paid envelopes, or taken to a specialist shop, where the tang of developing fluid would mingle with those of other pharmaceuticals. The process of making those films photographs was an art known only to those dedicated enough to pursue it.

Long before that, in the middle of the nineteenth century, came the prototype of modern, commercial photography: the wet collodion process, sometimes known as tin-type photography. The process of just one shot, one moment, becoming a record – a single image, with no second chances, standing as testimony to the essence of the self – a moment of being, representing the self with no chance of an airbrush, no careful edit – was one of trust, precision and abandon. A confluence of opposites drawn together by the sitter and the photographer. A skilled application of artistic positioning and raw, dangerous science: the sitter fixed in cadmium bromide, silver nitrate, cyanide.

There is a flux in the fixing of the image: an uncertainty about just what will happen from when the sitter is positioned and told to hold still for a full fifteen seconds, as a chemically prepared plate of tin or well-polished glass is positioned into the plate holder on the camera, the cap is removed from the lens, and the first part of the process invisibly unfolds. Then, in the darkroom, more chemistry. Ferrous sulphate reveals a negative image on the plate, before a fixative transforms the negative to positive and the final photograph is revealed.

The results are dark and magical. Anything with a hint of red is rendered almost black. Innocent eyes become wise and knowing. It’s as if the process draws out the darkness and seriousness in humanity. This is in such stark contrast to the carefree culture of today’s selfies, with pouts and smiles and heads flung back in a moment. A fling-back would render such images a blur.

Rochester-based photographer, Rikard Osterlund has been fascinated by the wet collodion process for years. Two years ago, he purchased an Edwardian camera, and now shoots portraits in the studios at Intra, at the Chatham end of Rochester High Street.

It is a labour of love, with the emphasis on labour. I watch him prepare a plate, balanced on his fingertips, dabbing albumen along its edges with a cotton bud, he pours collodion over the surface like syrup, before tilting it round the tile. “You have to get this right, an even coverage,” he explains, before pouring the excess back into the bottle. The air is thick with the scent of reagents. He waits a few beats for the liquid to start to set. If it dries too much, it will be useless. He places the plate in a silver bath while he sets up his camera. Within fifteen minutes, the plate will be unusable.

There is a slight workaround from the original process. In order to capture fidgety sitters, he uses a modern lighting rig with flashbulbs. When the lens cap is removed, he triggers the flash, and the image is captured in an instant. No need to wait stock-still anymore. But it’s still a one-time chance. One that demands a seriousness reflected in the final image. A seriousness seldom seen in photography in this century. A solemnity. Those who have seen his images often remark that there is a wildness to them – a Wild West wildness (the only surviving image of Billy the Kid is a wet plate tintype, as is the most famous image of Abraham Lincoln.) A pioneering spirit. A stark beauty and realness.

There is something deeply rewarding about the process not being instant. About working to create something, and about the fusion of art and science to make magic. It feels alchemic – as if a soul could be made, or broken, in the process. It feels connective – this was how our ancestors would have made their mark – a single image, framed, and passed down the generations, stories of the essence of the person lost, their countenance and demeanour scrutinised and now held only in this one moment, processed with precision and poison, linking us to them as we replicate the process, choosing it over modern photography for what it can reveal about us.

We place my daughter in front of the camera, behind the lights, a leaf in her hand. She likes leaves. She gives them to people. A gift from someone with no concept of monetary value, and no means with which to give anything of monetary value. She holds it up, and looks directly into the lens.

My child is an infant, still so full of innocence. So full of kindness, trust and vulnerability. But her portrait shot shows another her. Those aspects of who she is now are still there, but with them, a glimpse of who she will become. An older girl. A woman. One with wisdom and independence. In one image, she appears to reveal a self somehow contained in time past, present and future. A self I will one day have to let go into the world. A pioneer of whatever landscape time will have fashioned life into by then.

Press, hold, burst.

Rikard Osterlund runs portrait sessions at Intra.

Details of his sessions can be found here: