Inspiration

Moisture Seeker: Daniel Samanns’s Collodion Print Studio

After abandoning his career in photojournalism, Daniel Samanns from Germany revived the dream of his youth and founded a photo studio of wet-collodion print.

Bird In Flight spoke to Daniel about specifics of his technique, developing his own processing materials, his first clients, and the value of bringing back the methods of the past.

Daniel Samanns, age 46

From Dusseldorf, lives in Berlin. Started out as a commercial fashion photographer, later worked as a photojournalist for Bild, Tagesspiegel, Focus, Spiegel and Welt. After leaving journalistic field, he opened a studio of wet-collodion print production.
Idea

I spent over fifteen years working as a photojournalist for various German publications reporting on the events in Europe and other parts of the world. In 2011 the memory of my longtime dream resurfaced – to visit villages in the Alps and to photograph the old folks whose children left home to relocate to big cities for work. Twenty years ago I thought that my characters would understand what I was trying to accomplish only if I had an antique wooden plate camera on me – like the ones they remembered being used when they where young. Back then this task seemed all too difficult to fulfill, so I postponed the idea till better times.

When the desire to learn the old printing methods reemerged, I decided to seriously pursue the subject: I went to libraries, read all kinds of literature and internet articles about it.

The most difficult thing about this printing technique is mixing all the ingredients in correctly measured proportions and prepare emulsions for processing. My first picture took me about three months to produce. A few weeks later I managed to make my first collodion wet plate ambrotype.


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Nowadays every picture becomes available in mere minutes – regardless of whether the shot was taken with a professional camera or an iPhone. A photograph that is not memorable carries no value. I want to go back to the roots of photography – to the dark room where light, emulsions and alchemy work together to create one-of-a-kind images.

Technique

The ambrotype serves as a base for the shot – an underdeveloped negative on a glass plate. In order to see the image as a positive you need to blacken it on the opposite side. I often use already prepared blackened stills by Lacobel-Glass. The whole process – from applying collodion to developing the image – takes about 15-20 minutes. The timing depends on the temperature variations and the darkness level of the processing room.

To start with, I cut 18×24 cm plates, polish the edges and carefully wash it. Later, in the daylight, I fill the plates with collodion, and while in the dark room I immerse them into a solution of silver nitrate for about four minutes. Then I insert those into the camera.

By that time the person I’m photographing has already taken their pose and placed their head on a special headrest – that way it’s easier to stay still throughout the exposition. It takes from 4 to 24 seconds, depending on the freshness of collodion. Afterwards I develop the shots in the dark room – expeditiously pouring solutions onto the plates and spreading them evenly over the surface while closely watching the exposing of the image. As soon as it looks the way I expect it to, I pause the processing with some distilled water. At this point the plate looks like a foggy blue glass marked with the outlines of the person. Then the plate goes into the bath of fixing chemicals – and at this stage the image comes through. I call it “the moment of truth”. In some way, it reminds you of a regular paper print, only a million times better.


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After the setting process I wash off the plate with running water for 5-45 minutes depending on the fixing solution, and dry it out with a hair dryer. In the past they used kerosine lamps for it, but those can easily ruin the plate, so I prefer not to take that risk. The last step of wet-collodion photographic process is applying a glaze of alcohol solution of sandarac (a substance for polishes and lacquers), and coating it with some lavender oil afterwards. It creates an additional protective layer.

Specifics of the technique

Ambrotypes are real physical objects with its own size and weight. With your fingertips, you can feel the different liquid layers hardened onto the glass. Besides the visual impact of the photograph, you will also sense its aroma, especially after it was treated with lavender oil.

The most difficult thing in collodion wet print is to understand the technique and to follow it scrupulously. A lot depends on the temperature conditions and the age of liquids used in the processing – sometimes even a few minutes make a big difference. In order to create a good base for the plate you need to select solutions that interact correctly together. Often you need not just one, but two expositions. Three is my maximum.

A human eye can’t detect interaction of the orthochromatic layer with the ultraviolet one, therefore you definitely need to know what you’re doing and truly have a feel for it. As in any skill, you need to gain practical experience and prepare in advance.


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Equipment

I use antique wooden plate cameras with alloy apertures – the same ones as in the black-and-white movies. They all are made to be fitted with plates of various sizes – 13×18 cm, 18×24 сm, 24×30 сm, and 30×40 сm. I find them on the internet – through eBay, Amazon, and other sites. You have to be very careful with this sort of equipment – when something brakes you need to repair it yourself or find a specialist (which is quite a problem). It is also difficult to locate suppliers of the ingredients for the alchemical processes, but if you’re lucky you might be able to order premixed solutions that you can use right away, without having to prepare it yourself. The quality of the equipment is also important as I can’t produce a plate with a smartphone. First, I always contemplate on what the shot should look like, then I choose the camera, the lens, and the necessary chemicals.

Copyright

As a photographer I reserve all rights to my images. I give photographs away only if I made them by a commercial order – in this case I produce five plates, each signed and numbered. There are pictures that I’m crazy in love with and would never sell. As a rule, clients only purchase select rights which still permit me the future use of the original plates. I try to compromise when it comes to this particular matter.

Clients

Working with silver is always pricy. I invested my own funds into collodion wet plate production, and, just like any other business, I expect it to be profitable. Clients find me via my exhibitions, publications of my works in various editions, and simply by word-of-mouth. Figures of European movie industry, a Berlin fashion company, and car parts manufacturers are among my customers.


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Value of wet-collodion photography

In the recent years velocity of our lives drastically increased, practically everything is within a one-click reach now. With my images, I want to offer people the rare opportunity to slow down, to take a pause. It’s vital to retain the notion of your roots, to glance into your past once in a while, and to reminisce about your personal and collective values. Most often I shoot portraits, because I like working with people. The wet-collodion photographs capture what you can’t physically see. My shots always convey the personality of my characters.

Digitizing deprives these photographs of their worth. It’s one thing to look at it on a computer screen or a mobile phone, and another – to actually hold a real photo in your hand. This doesn’t mean that I’m absolutely opposed to digitizing, it’s just that I’m not a huge fan of it. After many years in the field of photojournalism, I developed my own style that I’d like to continue practicing.

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