Passing close to the rocky coast
This might be the day for quiet perusal of a diary entry from a long time ago.
Doing wet plate photography
To go with the exhibition The view from here the Museum of Brisbane put on a one-day workshop on the wet-plate (collodion) photographic process last Saturday. The workshop was taught by photographer Craig Tuffin and organised by Hilary Perrett from the museum. It was limited to three participants and I was one of them. The other two were photography students at the Queensland College of Art where the workshop was held. There we had the use of well-equipped and well-ventilated darkrooms.
Craig Tuffin is a fine art photographer who incorporates nineteenth-century processes in his practice—processes that he has mastered through study and experiment. The two other workshop participants were interested in the creative use of these processes. I don’t aspire to make such work—for me the workshop was a chance to understand the practicalities that my second great grand uncle Daniel Marquis dealt with.
Daniel Marquis was a commercial photographer in Scotland from the early 1850s, came to Brisbane in 1865, and operated a studio here until his death in 1879. The collodion (wet plate) process was the predominant photographic process throughout his photographic career. Skilled operators like Daniel could make excellent photographs with collodion but, as I was to find out, there were many technical difficulties.
The simplest application of the collodion process was the tintype, a photographic image made on a sheet of tinplate coated with black japan (a kind of bituminous lacquer). Each tintype photograph is a unique artefact produced by exposure to light in the camera, rather than one of any number of prints made from a negative.
With Craig’s guidance we each produced several tintype photos, by coating, sensitizing, exposing, developing, and varnishing a metal plate. Instead of japanned tinplate we used sheets of aluminium with a modern paint finish, but in other respects the materials and methods would have been familiar to Daniel Marquis. Here is an outline of the steps we followed.
Setting up the camera—Craig brought along various large-format cameras. I chose to use his 4x5 inch Sinar which brought back memories of working with similar gear.
Coating—This step involves holding the plate horizontal and pouring collodion on to it, tipping the plate slightly so that the sticky fluid coats it evenly. Easier said than done.
Sensitizing—Under dim red light, the still-damp plate is placed into a bath of silver nitrate for three to four minutes, taken out and dried on its back and edges, then inserted into the lightproof plate holder.
Exposing—Quickly, while the emulsion is still damp, the plate holder is placed in the camera (which has already been set up and focussed), the dark slide withdraw, and the camera shutter opened to expose the plate to light. Judging the exposure, given the uncontrolled variables, seems to be a black art.
Developing—Quickly, before the collodion emulsion dries, the dark slide is refitted, and the plate holder is taken back to the darkroom for processing. The developer is poured onto the plate (evenly, not too slow, not too fast, not too vigorously…) and gently shaken while the development proceeds under the red light for about fifteen seconds. When it is judged that the time is right (another black art) the development is stopped with water, and the plate is rinsed with several changes of water, then fixed in hypo for five minutes, then put into a hypo-clearing tray, and then washed for thirty minutes and allowed to dry.
Varnishing—To protect the fragile emulsion from physical and atmosperic damage it is coated with varnish. First the plate is warmed, then an even coating of gum sandarac varnish is deftly poured on it. It take practice to achieve deftness.
At the end of the day I was pleased to have made three tintypes with recognisable images on them. If I were to set up a darkroom and work on my skills I’m sure I could make some decent wet plate photographs, but I don’t intend to do that. It was enough for me to have a day’s exposure to some of the realities of nineteenth-century photography. It took me a step beyond what I had got from books.
Significant places and related objects
The Queensland Maritime Museum in Brisbane has a wonderful gallery of lighthouse equipment that displays the development of lighthouse technology since the nineteenth century.
The centrepiece of the gallery is a third-order rotating lens made by Chance Brothers & Co Limited of Birmingham in 1915, complete with its mercury-float pedestal, hand-wound clockwork, and kerosene pressure-lamp. The lens was built for the lighthouse at Cape Don on the Cobourg Peninsula in the Northern Territory.
Chance Brothers & Co were the dominant suppliers of lighthouse equipment to the Australian colonies from the 1850s until the 1920s. The Cape Don lens is a good example of the type of large, kerosene-powered rotating dioptric lighthouse apparatus built by the firm, and brings joy to the hearts of lighthouse fanciers. From the factory near Birmingham equipment like this was shipped out to lighthouses all over the world, from Adelaide to Zanzibar.
This is not just a generic piece of lighthouse technology. It has historic associations with the particular place and structure it was built for. The Cape Don lighthouse was the first tall reinforced-concrete tower built in Australia. Building that lightstation was the biggest single project undertaken by the newly-established Commonwealth Lighthouse Service. Work started in May 1915 and finished in September 1917, over three long dry-season campaigns. During the intervening wet seasons, when rain and the risk of cyclones would have made work impossible, the site was abandoned. The materials were all brought by ship from Melbourne, except for the gravel which was obtained locally. This was a project of national importance, carried out during the Great War on a very remote and difficult site.
The finished lighthouse was operated by light-keepers and their families who lived in the country of the Iwaidja speaking peoples of the Cobourg Peninsula. The story of those light-keepers is told at the Queensland Maritime Museum by a display of photographs and drawings of the site.
Whenever I visit the museum the display reminds me of Cape Don. I have been to that remarkable place on two occasions—in 2007 for the heritage lighthouse survey project, and in 2014 to gather information for a heritage management plan.
Cape Don lighthouse is still showing the way for ships navigating through the Dundas Strait between the mainland and Melville Island on the approach to Darwin. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority has recently carried out major repairs.
Barcaldine and the Artesian breakthrough
Just posted on the John Oxley Library blog—a piece by Thom Blake—17th December 1887—a significant day for Queensland, in which he tells the story of the first government-sponsored artesian well in Queensland.
That well was sunk at Barcaldine, one of my favourite country towns, and was a big factor in the success of the town—an early success that is still marked by a magnificent set of pubs, their shady verandahs lined up along the southern side of the main street. Their names record their old associations: the Union, the Railway, the Commercial, the Shakespeare, the Globe—and the Artesian.