While cleaning and preparing Gilli-the-Bus for her fall adventure a few weeks ago, I found a June Bug belly up in one of dashboard crevasses and found the sight compelling enough to inspire a daguerrean close-up. After the trip there were a few things to do, so I couldn’t get to it until last weekend and so here’s a quick recount of how Mr. Beetle’s photo session went.
Putty was used to adhere him to a white mat board and that was set up at about 25° angle for easier focusing. Two strobes illuminated the subject – one bare bulb with 3000ws behind it and another one with 4000ws being put through a strip box with both diffusers removed. One of the sharpest lenses I own, a Rodenstock Sironar 180mm 5.6, was selected and with that on a Zone VI camera bellows allowed me to focus on just about 1.5:1 macro ratio. In order to get almost all of his rather dimensional body in focus I had to use f16, so with bellows extended all the way I knew it would take a lot of artificial flash light to give the generally slow daguerreotype plate enough exposure (by the time I got to the exposure being how I wanted it I had to do 30(!) pops with those strobes). I chose 1/6 plate format because on it proportions of subject to plate size seemed most pleasing.
To see the exact composition, how it would translate with a blue-sensitive emulsion I often make a wet plate test image. This also lets me know how much exposure I should give the daguerreotype since in my practice those seem to be about 3 stops slower than collodion (others have achieved faster speed, but they aren’t sharing their secrets…). Here’s the 1/6 plate ambrotype test plate. I usually do collodion tests on glass since I can erase them and reuse the glass, but in this case the photo turned out rather well on the first try and I actually kept it and just varnished it prior to starting to write this entry. This one is actually made on dark green glass, which is really neat because when you look though it you pretty much get a green bug, which is what color Mr. Beetle is.
At this point I’d like take off on a little chemical tangent. First I need to explain that I have made daguerreotypes relatively often and of sufficiently consistent quality, but only for about a period of about 7-8 months and at the point of June Bug shoot that was about 6 months in the past. After a break and with so little previous experience the machinations involved in creating a good plate do not come back very naturally. About a month prior someone asked me to make a portrait of them and after 3 tries we lost the light and got nothing good in return. My chemistry was acting really strange… One of the most crucial steps in making a daguerreotype is fuming the plate over iodine and then bromine and achieving just the right color. Progression of colors is usually taken through the yellow spectrum and just up to the pink in iodine and then into pink, rose and magenta with bromine (exact balance depends on personal preference of each photographer and most actually very carefully guard their fuming colors). Well, my iodine was working splendidly (35-40sec to deep gold), but no matter how long I kept the plate over bromine it didn’t change color (before the break I would get the results I want within 15sec on average). Between the failed attempt mentioned above and the session with Mr. Beetle I did have one more session during which I succeeded in making a very satisfactory plate of my neighbor Fred and it was then that I narrowed down my problems to old silica beads. The way I use bromine is by putting 2-3 drops of it (100% pure, fuming, extra corrosive stuff) into a glass dish with half inch or so of silica at the bottom, silica beads absorb vast majority of those drops right away and then release the fumes slowly into the box. Well, apparently, over the course of just over a year, which is when a new bag of beads was open, silica absorbed too much moisture from the air and that interfered with its willingness to release the fumes. To remedy that I baked them in a toaster oven for a while and that seemed to have dried them out and helped a bit, but I’m still ordering new beads right now just to be on the safe side.
Now a touch about polishing and how it can affect fuming. Polishing step comes directly prior to fuming and evenness of polish dictates how evenly the colors are distributed on the surface, which in turn correlates with light sensitivity and local contrast. Well, polishing is another miniature enclave of an art form hidden within the larger daguerrean practice and it’s not an easy one to master. My polishing on the very first June Bug attempt was not at all up to par, but I decided to take a picture of the results nonetheless. Here it is folks – don’t let anyone tell you that this is a good plate…
Luckily daguerreotype images can be buffed out a number of times and so the rather expensive silver plate can be reused until one gets the desired results. After I erased the image above the second fuming on that same plate went a lot better and more even, which gave me a good deal of hope. While it was developing in mercury fumes I was actually excited enough to take the following picture and text it to my friend Race Gentry, a local daguerreotype and wet plate worker, to lure him into coming over to hang out and watch me work.
Race said he was on his way and after pulling out the developed image I saw that it was extremely close to exactly what I wanted to see. Elated I waited for Race to show up and witness the most nerve-wrecking step in the whole process (at least it is for me) – gilding with gold chloride. The reason why that step still gives me a bit of weakness in the knees is that it’s during that step that all the staining in the world can appear and ruin what should have been a perfect plate. However gilding is something one can’t get around – not only does it protect the image and makes it a lot more physically stable, but, if done well, it greatly improves contrast and brightness. Luck was not on my side this time though… As my friend watched on I heated the plate up too much in one little area right on the body of Mr. Beetle and heat fog appeared in the shadows, destroying what could have been an excellent image… Take a look right in the middle of the right side on him in photo below – see that bluish cloudiness? Yeah…
The fogging is minor and otherwise it was a pretty good plate. There’s a stain in top right corner and if it wasn’t for that stain I probably would have stopped there and lived with a little bit of fog, but after a bit of contemplation and internal struggle a decision was made to erase this one as well and try again. Third fuming again went haywire – colors were all striped and in my zeal to make bromine work it’s magic I actually overdid it, taking the plate into blue territory, which is something you don’t really want. The result of my 3rd attempt wasn’t too bad – it would almost be interpreted as an artistic take on a daguerreotype theme, uneven and blotchy, but not to the point where it’s ugly.
Image wasn’t too bad, but attempt #2 was better and so it made me wish I never erased it… I had to try it again. Race had to leave since by then it was getting close to 10pm, so I pressed onward on my own. Just in case things were on the downhill slope I decided to keep attempt #3 and make plate 4 on a different plate. Maybe it was changing the plate or maybe it was the three previous attempts that made me polish better, but fuming went way better this time and after exposure and development I was rewarded with the following likeness.
The picture above is of an un-gilded daguerreotype. It’s rather flat and lifeless as you can see. There it’s also still in the wash – an un-gilded image will brighten up a good bit, but it still won’t look anything close to as good as after gilding and I have gotten into the habit of not even drying them prior to gilding because it seems that the act of drying can itself bring on certain staining issues. Below the plate is shown on my gilding contraption with gold chloride on top of it being held on there via surface tension. I always find it fascinating how that miniature mound of liquid looks.
After drying the plate I was overjoyed to see that a near perfect image was looking back at me from its surface. The image was bright, with good contrast and very minimal mercury accumulation in shadows, which is actually a perfect thing to see because that lets you know that development was carried up just a hair past perfect and the plate couldn’t have gotten any brighter without going way overboard and starting to see noticeable globs of mercury on there.
Since I still had plate #3 I decided to compare them side by side and that made me realize that my mild content with the somewhat abstract quality of the previous image was misguided and that if I stopped there I would have regretted it. Take a look at plate 4 on the left and 3 next to it.
The next day I chose what I think is a very appropriate antique brass mat (I think the floral motif in it goes well with the life which Mr. Beetle must have lived), found a well-fitting preserver and sealed it up. Now, if protected from the most extreme of elements, it will last through centuries.
To finish it up I dug into my stash of Michael Rhodes’ reproduction cases and so here’s the finished product (which, by the way is available for purchase just as well as the ambrotype test plate seen at the start of this entry – just shoot me an email if you’d like to discuss prices).
Thanks for reading,