Wet Plate Collodion Photography with Allan Barnes

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Allan Barnes who showed me a beautiful and re-emerging medium called wet plate collodion. A process which infuses plates of tin and/or glass with a photographic emulsion of silver halides suspended in gelatin and creates a dazzling effect. For those unfamiliar with the process, take a minute and sit down with Allan and discover this beautiful form as he explains it in his own words.
Wet Plate Collodion Photography With Allan Barnes

Sabrina Rucker

The process is called wet plate collodion, and was invented in 1850 by an English Sculptor named Frederick Scott Archer, who wanted an easier, quicker way to make images of people for his bust-making studio. At the time, most photographs were made via the Daguerreotype process, which was very complicated and required the use of Mercury and Bromine to create an image. The less-popular Calotype process was also in use, but used a paper negative to create a paper positive. The porous nature of paper produced an image that was not as crisp.

During the first few years of the WPC process, glass was coated with collodion (basically cotton liquified in ether and alcohol and treated with salts or bromides) and dipped into Silver Nitrate. The image was then captured on the still moist plate and developed immediately.

In 1854, Professor Hamilton Smith of Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio sought to use collodion on surfaces other than glass, which was still very expensive in the mid-19th century and often had to be shipped over great distances and in rugged terrain. He tried coating paper with collodion, but the paper would dissolve. He patented the use of collodion on thin pieces of metal in 1856, and initially called his invention the Melainotype.

Wet Plate Collodion Photography With Allan BarnesTwo early suppliers of these plates began to compete for business, and since the name “Melainotype” was patented. A rival supplier began to call them “Ferrotypes,” where the name “tintype” came from is unknown.

There is no tin in a tintype, rather it is simply an ambrotype made on a piece of inexpensive metal.

Most of my plates are actually tintypes, made on aluminum trophy plate, but I also do some ambrotypes on clear glass and some on stained glass, usually ruby or cobalt blue.

I have been a photographer for 30 years. I started making pictures for the student newspaper at Wayne State University in Detroit (The South End) and morphed into a photojournalist. In the ’90s I started doing a lot of experimental work with Polaroid film. My favorite was a large-format film called Type 55 and Type 665.

These films produced not only a black and white positive, but also beautiful black and white negatives which could be washed, dried and reproduced.

About ten years ago, it became evident that Polaroid was going to become extinct, and I felt an impending sense of loss. Also, in the last ten years, interest in historical processes such as the Daguerreotype and Wet Plate Collodion began to increase. I started to see more of these retro processes on display in galleries and in photography publications.

When I saw Robert Maxwell’s ambrotypes, I knew where I wanted to go. I had briefly considered learning the Daguerrotype process, but was scared off by the idea of using Mercury.

Wet Plate Collodion Photography With Allan Barnes

I took a two-day workshop with Joni Sternbach in New York City in 2005 and was hooked. I took another, longer workshop with John Coffer in 2006 and began acquisition of all the gear needed. During this time I also relocated to Los Angeles, so by the time I got started making tintypes and ambrotypes, it was 2008.

Interestingly, many people who practice these processes refer to them as the “Polaroids of the 19th Century.”

I think that it’s a great analogy.

I quickly realized that Los Angeles was a great place to make tintypes, because of the wonderful light here (The ISO on this process is something like .5, so constant sunlight is helpful). There are also a lot of really interesting people to photograph here. I gravitate towards performers and designers of unusual clothing.

It’s not that I want to recreate history, but rather I want to make images that are very timeless. I love collaboration, so I have been working with an ever increasing network of talented designers, models, performers, makeup artists, hair stylists, etc.

It was through this network of people that I met Sabrina. She came over to do makeup once, then again, then it became evident that we had similar tastes in art and art history.

When we started comparing our collections of insects and butterflies, I knew that I had met a special person.


We started to collaborate in late September of 2012 and have not stopped. She has become my most valuable muse and collaborator. She’s my Tina Modotti. (The only thing missing between us, is her passport!)

- Allan Barnes

To find out more and purchase the works of Allan Barnes and Sabrina Rucker, please visit Allan’s Etsy.

Sabrina Rucker
Leather/Jewelry Designer
Wardrobe by Mother of London

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