Self-experimentation with Ambrotypes

“How I waited spellbound to be spellbound.” An ambro-typical report.

If you follow an ambitious project such as “Lightcatcher” for a long time, you learn faster than you might think and more than you would believe about a very special age-old type of photography: the ambrotype, one of the first methods to capture images for all time. And of course you can more or less imagine that it must have been strange at that time, 150 years and more ago, to stand patiently in front of a wooden photo box, ideally “without moving an eyelash”, because a blurred picture was not so easy to delete nor simply to repeat as is the case today. Because that would be expensive – really expensive.

The ambrotype camera to be built for the Lightcatcher project is not just some old camera of normal size, but is in fact an enormous Russian truck that will be converted into a camera! This project is not about taking portraits as was usual in the old days – the subject here is mountains. And not just any mountains, but the Dolomites in all their magnificence and beauty.

A “compact” initial version, two metres long and 70 cm wide (ironically named “Baby”) was used for the pilot project, or test object, for this enormous venture. Imagine then just how I felt when I was asked the question: “Would you let your portrait be taken by ‘Baby’”? Me – a test model! My own face impressed on glass for all eternity. And what if I start shaking, or I cannot hold my breath for long enough? Then the photo will be a failure. And, given the quantities of silver and special glass required (of which the sole manufacturer is now located in the Czech region of Bohemia), a very costly failure.


Yet I still answered “Yes”.

An old wooden door creaks quietly open and you walk out of the blazing sunlight, through thick stone walls and into the dark, which takes a little time to get used to. Glass plates with impressive “first attempts”, a screen, cellar, darkroom, tables, fluorescent screens, oriental carpets alongside quaint farmhouse furniture – these old vaults have a unique atmosphere. The tension rises simply on account of the professional mask that is now handed to me, the apt instructions and Kurt the artist, who is wearing a somewhat unsettling thick leather apron.

Hold it!

A look in the mirror. I seem to have gone back in time! The retro style suits me, I think. I have to position myself in front of the plate-sized lens. A black eye into which I stare just like it seems to be staring at me. Spotlight on. I have never been in the spotlight like this! Knowing that the ambrotype crew will be looking at me in detail on the focusing screen on the other side of the camera. A headrest slides up close behind me as a support and to make sure that I really won’t move an eyelash. Prior to the actual exposure Kurt performs some exposure tests on a small 9 x 12 cm plate.

The glass plates are made of pitch-black, solid-coloured cathedral glass. They are cleaned with a special paste of calcium and alcohol and then wrapped in nylon film. The collodion must be applied two days beforehand as it has to mature. The silver bath must always be very fresh. Before the light can be caught, the glass plate must be prepared: it is carefully removed from the nylon film using gloves as every fingerprint, and speck of dust might affect the result. Slowly the viscous collodion is poured onto the plate and spread over it. As soon as it starts to dry, the glass plate is placed in the silver bath and the collodion is soaked with silver crystals. Now the plate is light-sensitive. The glass plate is inserted into the magazine in complete darkness.

I breathe for the first time. I mentally count to 2, 4, 8, 16. Kurt pulls the adapter with the test exposures from the holder and disappears for ten minutes. It feels more like thirty, for the simple reason that I am not used to standing still for so long. My legs ache. So does my back, all just from standing still for ten minutes!
After two attempts it becomes clear that six seconds will be the optimum exposure time. Now comes the serious business. My heart leaps into my mouth as I think that something is sure to blur the image. Kurt inserts the magazine with the glass plate and walks around me once. Then he removes the cover from the objective. He counts the seconds loudly and I hold my breath. “Done!” he calls and pulls out the magazine with the exposed plate. I follow him excitedly into the cellar, alias the darkroom. In the pitch-dark he pours chemicals over the plate which lies in a bath.

The magazine is inserted into the “Baby” and the coated, light-sensitive side revealed inside the camera. The cover is removed from the lens, the light falls on the silver crystals for six seconds and activates them. Now an image is concealed in the silver layer.

I can feel his tension as, after eight seconds, there is still nothing on the plate. “Come on, come on!” he says. And then, as if by magic, grey shadows appear on the plate then turn into shapes in shades of grey. The first outline. White contours that emerge as a face. “This is the negative.” Kurt pours water over the plate, grabs it and walks into the second darkroom, where the actual photographic magic occurs. I hop around and suddenly the seconds seem to stretch out like chewing gum, because what I saw appearing has enormously affected me. Silver-grey contours rising from the black glass.

In the darkroom, developer – iron sulphate – is poured onto the exposed plate. This boosts the activation of the silver crystals and makes the captured light visible as a negative. Water has to be poured over the image as soon as it appears in order to stop the process. The picture is then placed in the fixer where the silver crystals are transformed into metallic silver, thus creating a positive image from the negative. The non-activated silver crystals are washed off and the silver image is now fixed on the black glass with a protective layer for generations to come.


Emotion captured on glass

Kurt is beaming all over his face as he holds under my nose the result of many hours of work and five seconds of holding my breath.
And now I’m speechless. Absolutely. My own face is on this plate, looking out at me more expressively than any mirror image or photo has ever had shown me. The contours are so fine, so clear and yet at the same time so gently blurred that I can’t decide whether the image embodies strength of character or a sort of gentleness. I remind myself of an actress from the last century. And I am absolutely overwhelmed by my own image, something that has never happened to me in my life before. The highest expression of quiet enthusiasm on my part is always silence. I can only humbly look on at such art, which lies between knowledge and chemistry, between machine and human, between material and light. Here the invisible is made visible and is immortalised on glass. The ambrotype is emotion caught on glass: images with the power to move.