Wet plate collodion photography is a complicated process, and not everyone has neither the resources nor the expertise it requires.Fortunately, we were able to get in touch with photographer David Puntel who is also the founder of the Central Valley Project.
Now based in Berlin, David invited me for an interview at his daylight studio on the outskirts of Neukölln, located in the southeastern portion of the German Capital. A short drive and some walking brought us to his photo studio, which resembles a small cabin. What makes is different, however, is the the roof. Made entirely of transparent plastic sheets, it allows more light to penetrate inside.
David, what was the main Idea for Central Valley Project?
Before the CVP, I worked as a documentary photographer. Everything in black and white 35mm film. And that was super. But my sister—-she is an artist by the way— every time I would visit her, they would be in a huge room, just sitting there, having a chat, drinking beer, having lots of fun. But my thoughts were…yeah…now I need to go home to my darkroom. Where it’s dark and wet. And I just wanted to work in a brighter environment. But it was also 1999 in San Francisco and there was the “The Dotcom Explosion”. And everyone said analogue photography is dead and has no future. But I said: Wait! This is only another medium. So I also wanted to work more with my hands then with digital. Black and white was not enough. So I started looking for alternatives. The problem is, I can’t paint and I can’t draw. I thought I should search in the past and I started looking in Daguerreotypes. So I worked with someone who had a doctor in photography and he said Daguerreotype is bad and the exposure is so long and the chemicals are so poisonous like for example mercury. He said, he knows a pair and they teach wet-plate-collodion in Montana. So I went there for a workshop in autumn 1999.
Where did the idea for the name ‘Central Valley Project’ come from?
In California, there is the Central Valley. And in the great depression, they started to bring water into the valley. And the valley is almost a desert. But they brought in all the water and it was the worst project ever and a big environmental disaster. So I thought, I have a better project for the central valley. The Central Valley is really beautiful , near San Francisco. I lived there for 18 years.
So, how does the wet plate collodion process work?
At first I buy glass and cut it, but I often find glass in public in Berlin. But it’s a problem to buy the chemicals in Germany. I can’t buy Cadmiumbromid here, so when I went to the US I brought some of that with me.
So all the chemicals, you have to make and mix it by yourself. The Collodion that sticks to the glass, then it goes into a silverbath and now it’s light sensitive so I put it in a holder. And then it’s exposed in the camera.
After that, I bring it back to the darkroom. I have a developer with iron, acetic acid and water and this develops the plate. At last I let the plate dry over an open flame and varnish it with a mix of alcohol, tree resin and lavender oil. This is quite amazing because it’s really easy. And altogether produces this magical image.
And how long does it take to make the photo?
Altogether, maybe 10 minutes.
And only the exposure?
Today is very dark, because it’s January so it will take about 20 seconds. But in summer it will take only about 4 seconds. So, some people panic a little to hold still, even for 5 seconds. But here I have my prototype which I’ve had for 5 years now. It’s a clip attached to a chair. I saw this in an old french magazine from 1800. Back in the days they had these big iron-clips. But this is pretty elegant and helped support the portrait at the time.
Is it complicated for you to take pictures with children or really nervous people?
If you see the old photographs, you see that the photos of parents are sharp and the children’s are a little bit blurry. But for example, my daughter, she just turned 7 and I’ve taken photos of her since she was 5. She is the perfect model. It depends on the person. But I think it’s interesting to. I tried to take pictures of a couple with a child on their lap, trying to hold them and the adults were in perfect focus. And the child was a little bit nervous. You see it’s still this child but they’re not purely in focus. So i even said, sometimes to the parents: “Just hold their head from behind!” And they are like: “No no no!“ So I showed them a great old historical photograph from the 1870s. And the child is sitting on the chair and you see a hand coming from the side, holding their head. I think it’s beautiful and it’s so crazy. But that’s what they had to do!
As I can see, there is a Petzval Lens mounted on your camera.
The Petzval lens is a “Vogtländer & Sohn” from Vienna, built in 1860. I bought it in the US and it’s somewhat my favourite lens. There is only one point which is sharp and nowadays the people love that but in the 1800s this was very bad because they wanted everything sharp. It’s a super fast lens. Altogether I have 8 lenses, a few Aplanat-lenses. The Aplanat is the better lens but not as fast as the Petzval. The camera body is from Kodak, from 1910. It’s kind like of a working horse. It was neither a expensive nor a cheap camera.A very good build. So we call it the working horse. It wasn’t very pretty but it works in all circumstances.
What are your future plans, are there other techniques that you want to try?
I started getting into a super old technique even before Daguerre.Nicéphore Niépce, the guy even before Daguerre found out that plants are light sensitive. So it’s possible to use Lavendel-oil, totally boiled down into only the lavendel and this is light sensitive, but not very. It needs 8 Hours exposure. I want to try that. But actually I am so obsessed with collodion. I can make negatives and I can put them on salt paper or albumen. There are so many possibilities with collodion.
Photographs from around 1860 still look perfect, and I know, the pictures I take nowadays are my legacy and they will still look perfect, three generations later, except if someone tears them.
Wet plate collodion portraits make excellent gifts, and The Central Valley Project produces such timeless imagery and accepts portrait commissions. The rates are available on this page.
Thanks to David Puntel for the great opportunity to learn about wet plate collodion photography.