I attended a weekend wet plate workshop with the guru that is John Brewer and hey - this wet plate stuff is pretty easy! So I bought all of the equipment and chemistry that I needed, I already had suitable cameras and plate holders, and off I set into this exciting new domain.

The following weekend I set up my lighting in the conservatory after preparing the silver nitrate the day before and leaving a plate in it over night. So full of confidence prepared my newly cut plain glass plates, sensitised them, exposed them and – nothing! So longer exposure and guess what? Nothing! This went on for about five plates; it’s a good job that you can clean off glass plates and re-use them.

So what was going wrong – firstly the glass in my conservatory filters out UV light! Secondly my lights, despite having a high UV content, were not powerful enough, so new lights were ordered ready for the following weekend.

The week passed and again I set up a still life and put my nice new lights together. Focussed my 5x7 Kodak and prepared a plate – this time I got an image! It was pretty feint but there was definitely something there. One thing that I discovered during this session – there are so many things that can go wrong with the process, and I think I managed most of them! By the end of the day I was getting a recognisable image, but I wasn’t getting comets, I was getting a meteor shower!

After this I had to take an enforced break. I was working with a friend towards a joint exhibition, and after working on it for several weeks she pulled out of the project with two weeks to go until opening night. The gallery had put their PR company onto publicising it, press releases had gone out and all was organised, so a frantic period rethinking the show, spending about three days on the phone and email informing everyone of the changes and then having to sit down and organise the images, luckily I have a good friend who doesn’t realise how much help she was with this process. The show went up, opening night passed and I sold some prints and got some work so all worked out OK.

I was then presented with the opportunity to return to wet plate. My wife was in Wales for the week, my daughter had gone off to Huddersfied, even the dog was away from home – so nobody to complain about the mess and the smells. During the previous weeks I had done a lot of reading, so I had left my silver nitrate out in the sun for a day, filtered it, cleaned everything in sight and was all prepared to start again.

This time it started to go better, my first plate had a reasonably well exposed image and there were no comets. By the end of the first night I had at least one image that I was prepared to share on the internet. The warm glow of success was somewhat dulled by the effects of breathing in so much ether over the night. I returned to it the following night and although still not perfect I feel as if I’m and getting there at last.

The thing about wet plate is ownership, even if the image is of a poor quality, and I produced plenty of them, I own the image because I am involved in every step of the process. During the day I teach photography to students ranging from level 3 through to Degree. This means that most of my day is digital, the campus has no darkroom! My manager, Lesley, can’t understand that there is a difference between digital imaging and photography, and that I am a photographer. I can, and do, teach Photoshop, but I would rather not. I am happy teaching camera skills on digital as it has speeded up the learning process. I must admit that a lot of my own work gets shot on medium format digital, and I do scan more negs than I print, but these decisions are based on the outcomes that I need.

Wet plate as reminded me that I am a photographer, I create an image, not record one. The fact I now have brown stains on my fingers and smell of different chemistry is all part of the process. I even love the fact that the process is so slow and that the subject matter is limited. I also love the fact that the community out there is so supportive, even if I do have to use Google translate a lot despite trying to learn Polish. After what seemed like a bottomless pit that I had fallen into recently, wet plate as dragged me back into the real world.

The next step? Get my van back on the road and go out and do some location wet plates.