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Soul Catcher...

...Christopher Jelley

I'm not sure why I decided it would be a good idea to build my own medium format camera from scratch, but last year, prior to our Northmoor artist gathering I began with a couple of cardboard boxes, a lens from a pair of Victorian binoculars and some greaseproof paper. This was proper 'Blue Peter' style scratch building, but from these initial tests I worked out what I actually needed to construct and what skills I would need to produce analogue photographs.

A year on and it's good to think back to these initial experiments and the excitement of an image revealing itself, reversed and upside down on the makeshift paper viewing plate. The potential of creating something which would take me back to the very beginnings of photography was alluring. This was a process so removed from today's digital images it felt like new ground, new territory for me to explore.

My initial idea was to investigate the wet plate collodion process, a technique pioneered in early photography by making a glass or metal plate light sensitive with silver nitrate. But the technology was only able to work whilst the plate was wet, which in practice is about twenty minutes. All the steps from pouring the collodion onto the glass and making the glass light sensitive, right through to developing and fixing, not to mention taking the actual photograph itself, needed to happen inside this window. It was obvious that, simple as the process was, the infrastructure needed beyond the camera was very evidently essential. It was also plain that I had none of the above not even a cupboard for a darkroom, I'd have to make the lot and skill up as I went along.

So, the making would be problematic, the chemistry confusing, the processes confounding, and the photographs elusive. But now a year on, I have a tidy little folio of photos from those generous enough to sit for me, in the off chance that I might just capture a likeness.

A week or so ago I took a picture of Catrina Davies, author of Home Sick and Once Upon a Ravens Nest. I suggested that if we were lucky then perhaps, one of the two photos we would try to capture may come out. Her reply was 'Why wouldn't they, what could go wrong?'. That stumped me for a moment as the answer is actually quite a lot!

When I do manage to capture an image, it is even more precious for the jeopardy of this journey and the battered fractured pictures, with light leaks and corrosive grain, chemical faults and haunting ghostly faces are even more alluring to me than ever before. The camera I have made and the old analogue processes required seem to reach deeper into the subject somehow. But interestingly, if I stripped away all these aberrations and faults to achieve the perfect image then I may as well have just gone digital from the start.

Just prior to this session with Catrina I took my camera and darkroom to Dartington Hall for the Byline Festival with Unbound. I was there for just one day of the three but able to capture images of Jay Griffiths, Martin Shaw and Tamsin Abbott pictured below, all with direct positive paper in the camera. This is similar in sensitivity to the wet plate process but much easier to handle in the field. It was the first proper outing for me and exciting to be more public and performative in some respects with the process.

These direct positives prints are an essential step on the path to my real goal, the wet plate collodion process, and last week I was able to work with the eminent photographer Nicky Thompson investigating this very technique. Over the two day workshop we cleaned and sensitised glass plates in silver nitrate and then exposed them with her large format camera. We then developed and fixed the plates, the latter of these processes is the most enjoyable as the image reveals itself out of a smudgy cloud of chemicals outside the darkroom for all to see. This makes the reveal of the image a far more social event as all present lean in as the image to emerges.

Day two was focused on my scratch built camera, and seeing whether it could actually work with wet plates (and the chemistry I'd bought). By the end of the day we had several plates by my camera which was no small feat, the final ones with my chemistry as well. My time with Nicky was brilliant - a truly unique experience, made all the more worthwhile since I can now apply these skills going forward.

I will still be popping the direct positive paper in my slide boxes, as there is still much for me to achieve here, plus it's not as smelly or toxic as the collodion. We will be heading to our creative artist retreat again this autumn where I will be turning my hand to the collodion process in more depth and making more glass plates. But before then, as authors and artists visit Seven Fables I might ask them to sit for me, just for a short time, and perhaps, if I am lucky, catch an image of their soul.

For the very first soul glimmers from Christopher's camera do take a read, peek here


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