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Artist in Residence Emma Brown and Curatorial Assistant Tegan Rush discuss Emma’s photographic process and some highlights from the Victorian Virtual Reality exhibition.

Tegan Rush: What sparked your interest in wet collodion plate photography?

Emma Brown: I had been working as a portrait photographer for about 20 years when I realised that I wanted to start pushing the boundaries of my photographic knowledge. My initial aim was to study something different every year, a wet plate collodion workshop was one of the first things I did. The lovely thing about working in this process is the slowing down, it is very considered and thought through. It is a real collaboration between photographer and sitter because of the slow process. It is not taking a photograph, it is making a photograph together.

Photo of artist Emma Brown wearing blue overalls in an art studio

Emma in AiR Studio. Photo by Edd Jordan

TR: Could you tell us a little more about the wet collodion process?

EB: The wet plate collodion process was formalised in 1851 and was the first accessible and affordable process enabling more people to have their photographs taken. It involves a large format camera and a portable darkroom. As it is a wet process, the whole thing must be completed before the plate dries out. The time elapsed from the moment you take the plate out of the silver bath, when it is wet, to the point you develop is around ten minutes. First you go into the darkroom and prep your plate, you pour a layer of collodion on your substrate of either glass or tin. Glass makes an ambrotype and tin makes a tintype. Your collodion is a thin film that you flow across the plate- and leave to set. When it has gelled over but still a little soft, you put it into your silver bath under a red light where it sensitises. Once it is sensitised for about three minutes, you then take it out of the bath, drain off the excess silver, clean the back of the plate and load your plate holder. You then shoot that in your camera, before going back into your dark room, unload the plate, and then develop it, rinse it and fix it.

A black and white tintype portrait of two women

Emma Brown, Hannah and Nadiah

Egypt: Ancient and Modern. Grand Cairo, J. Ward (active 1850s),1850s, Albumen paper print on cardboard mount, Brian May Archive of Stereoscopy

Florence Small's Studio in London, taken by an unknown photographer in the 1890s. Albumen paper print on cardboard mount

TR: What are your favourite images in the exhibition and why?

EB: The pictures of photographers out on location with huge darkroom tents, someone is on a glacier and there is a picture of another person by the pyramids. Looking at these stereoscopic photographs enables me to feel a connection with those photographers as I am working with the same process now.

TR: The only known female stereo photographer in the Brian May Archive of Stereoscopy and featured in this exhibition is Eliza Allen – what do you think of her work?

EB: There are a couple of things that resonate with me in Eliza Allen’s work. Her images seem softer, they are not as clear and sharp as some of the other images in the exhibition. She was shooting Victorian life indoors in church halls, spaces that unlike your Victorian photographic studio, would not have had huge windows and therefore would have been really dark. Her images have a softer, more ethereal quality because of the technical constraints. So low light, meaning soft focus, short depth of field and long exposure. It gives her images of these bazaars quite a mysterious feel. Another interesting thing about her work are what we call artefacts, the technical imperfections. In some of her images we can see where she may be held the edge of her plate, leaving the mark of her finger on the side. In her portrait of a clergyman there is a swirl across the image behind him and that will have probably been from her developer pour as it ran across the plate. All these kinds of imperfections Victorian photographers would have been trying to get rid of completely, this was a new process to them, everyone would have been wanting to make technically perfect images. These artefacts are one of the things we like now about wet plate images. We are used to seeing digital images which are perfect from edge to edge, but with this process we can see the trace of the photographer.

Black and white tintype image of tree bark

Emma Brown, Tree Bark Triptych

TR: What have you working on during your residency here at Watts Gallery-Artists’ Village?

EB: Since I've been here, I have been inspired by Mary Watts and the stereoscopy show to start shooting some diptychs and images composed of multiple tintypes that tile together to create a greater image. I did not come to the residency with a particular plan but wanted to leave space to be inspired by my surroundings. The natural motifs in Mary’s tile work in the chapel and the grounds at Limnerslease are beautiful and you can really see what inspired her to make her work. I have either been collecting flora and fauna from the garden and bringing them into the studio to photograph or going out and shooting on location in the woods. Both of which have been fun, it has been great to take my portable darkroom into the woods and shoot there and talk to people about the process as they are exploring the site.

Photograph of the back of a black Ford car with the boot open. Next to it is a portable darkroom.

Emma's portable darkroom at Watts. Photo by Emma Brown

Black and white tintype image of a fig tree leaf

Emma Brown, Fig Diptych

Black and white tintype image of a fern leaf

Emma Brown, Fern Diptych