A little bit of research for tomorrows picbod session. I’ve underlined the most relevant parts.
SN: Although I use a wood and brass camera much like Burke’s, shooting on collodion was a non-starter for me because it is a highly explosive chemical. I never would have been allowed on any military bases with it or even been allowed to import it into Afghanistan in the first place. But the collodion process is fascinating. Because it’s an orthochromatic not a panchromatic medium it only makes pictures from the red light in the spectrum. Blue objects, like skies come out white; anything with a lot of red comes out dark. This would just be a curiosity except that with ortho film, Afghans (who have a lot of red in their skin pigment) appear very dark, almost African; whilst most Englishmen come out very, very pale. The racial difference is really exaggerated. If the English have kept in the shade, they photograph with angelic, lit-from-the-inside faces. If they’ve been out in the sun, they photograph like ruddy-faced farmers. Its a side-effect of the scientific process but one that was exploited by most colonial photographers keen to display the gulf between the lily-skinned sons of the Empire and the wild and blackened tribesmen of the mountains.
sn: Most modern practitioners using albumen seem to be bearded and brown-fingered men, antiquing their pictures with sepia tones and visible brush marks so as to show ‘the process.’ Burke however was after the greatest clarity; any visible technique would have been professionally insulting. And reaching that kind of quality is really hard. In order to experiment with this I built an albumen darkroom in my studio. Albumen is a barrier layer made from egg whites that creates a perfectly smooth printing surface. It accepts the photochemical and barriers it from reacting with the paper. The process is vaguely comical; with all the whipping of eggs and salt, it’s more like making omelettes than photographs. I’m afraid in 4 months I only made one decent print; it’s really hard to get good results. It’s not just a question of volume but also of consistency, especially if you are making prints for albums and panoramas as Burke did. I just don’t have Burke’s apothecary’s training.
pl: The albums themselves are gorgeous objects, especially the later ones that were printed some 20 years after the Second Afghan War itself, they have these beautiful hand drawn embellishments to the pages. Whole albums on various phases of the war cost 230 rupees, which was about half the monthly salary of a colonial official, so it was a very expensive investment; most of them seem to have ended up either in the private libraries of the leading commanders, like General Roberts, or the Viceroy, Lord Lytton who gave an album to the Queen; or in regimental museums where presumably the unit itself ordered the work to commemorate their actions.
sn: And that precious beauty is enhanced by knowing the albums are so rare. There may be more, but so far, you and I have only found eleven or twelve albums in the world. We have no way of knowing how many were made.
PL: What’s really fascinating about Victorian newspapers like The Graphic and The Illustrated London News is how modern they look. They have lots of cool white space; they use full-page drawings on the cover; fold-out panoramas: all sorts of visual techniques to engage the viewer.
But that brings me, of course, to this gaping hole in the middle of it all that Burke does. He doesn’t photograph the fighting itself or the results of it.
SN: Yes, there is this lacuna at the heart of the work. What I was fascinated by is not just what Burke does photograph, but more significantly what he does not photograph and why.
Albumen prints are a variety of photographic paper print in which a finely divided silver and gold image is dispersed in a matrix of egg white. Such prints constitute by far the largest category of objects in 19th century photographic collections. Albumen paper became the most widely used photographic printing material about 1855, and remained so until 1895; it did not disappear completely from photographic practice until the 1920’s.
Cameron made prints from collodion negatives and her images typically have an out of focus quality. She was criticised by some of her contemporaries for what they considered the technical failure of her work given that the collodian negative could produce images of great clarity and detail.
Julia Margaret Cameron’s fingerprints remain in perpetuity on the photograph. The physical evidence of the hand of the artist acts as a kind of signature. The two obvious black smudges that appear at the bottom right-hand side of the print seem not to have bothered her, nor altered the opinion of those who saw it. She made numerous prints from the marked plate and the painter G. F. Watts described the image as ‘quite divine’.
Sallly Mann also uses the collodion technique. For her series What Remains (photos of decomposing bodies), Mann felt it only right that she emulate the decomposition of the bodies within the final artefact. To do this, Mann uses the collodion wet print technique. She says she is ‘worried that she might perfect it one day’ as she loves the imperfections, which give that decaying feel to the final images.