Why Ferrotypes?

Well, I will tell you.  Many people have asked me about my path to choosing ferrotypes to be something serious about.  Many do not know how many people there are working, or beginning to work with wet and dry-plate photography and the truth is I did not when I decided that I wanted to do it.  After a bit of research I discovered that there was a small core of masters in the wet-plate field that were slowly building up a following as small numbers of people filtered through their workshops.  Many of these people in the beginning were being fed into the workshops from the “living history” pursuits like American Civil War re-enactments etc.  Over time that has been changing, but what is causing the movement to these processes of photography?  I cannot say for sure, not at this point because I have not spent much time researching, but I can write about my own feelings and thoughts on why I started my exploration of images on metal. 

First off, by day I am a full time network/computer troll working for the Man.  I ended up this way after discovering computers while in the Army (along time ago), and computers and networking became a hobby.  I think that I was drawn to the communications aspect of it all as it fed into my ham radio hobby.  Anyway, it should be of no surprise that digital photography is something that I adopted early, and embraced fully.  Looking back on my photography life I don’t think that I was ever in LOVE with film in general or a specific type, although my film of choice for my Europe years (to include my time in Bosnia) was Kodak T-Max.  But with my first exposure to digital capture in the Army in 1996 or so (a 30k Nikon film SLR rigged with a Kodak sensor) I was hooked.  What digital could do for photography as I knew it was pretty clear, but I would never have dreamed of what the capabilities are today, and set to be available in the near future. 

So I am on the digital track, and before long everyone else is too.  Because of digital everyone is a “photographer” now, for better or for worse.  The quality and capability of current digital capture hardware and the power of current post processing applications is just amazing!  The idea of “it’s not the camera, but the person behind it” still rigs very true, but it would seem that the circle of people that understand that is shrinking.  The demand for quality and the idea of paying for photography also seems to be something that is becoming the exception and not the norm.  This is something that would required many blog post to talk about!

It has taken a lot of words to get to this point, but I never said I was a writer!  After selling my prime action cameras (Nikon D2h) for nothing after only one and a half year of use, I took a look at the direction digital hardware was, is, and will continue to go.  Most of what is going on is planned obsolescence! Sure, if you are a big time shooter you can pay off your hardware debt, but if you are a low to mid time photographer it is much harder.  I felt like I was being pushed into a game I really did not want to play.  Add to that feeling another one, the feeling that people do not value digital images or prints.

 Why do you think that many feel that way about the value of photography in the digital age?  I think that it is because like many other aspects of our modern lives, it is disposable.  Nothing made today is meant to last more than a handful of years, so why not our photography as well?  Maybe you do not agree with this, but if you are not working with a very good archive solution for your digital images, and have thought how you will keep that archive accessible and safe through the years to come, then watch out for that next thunder storm or house fire, never mind the future changes in supported file formats in the future.  If you want to learn more about this type of stuff, you want to look at Digital Asset Management for photographers.

Ok, so you can see there was a building disillusionment with the digital world, even though I was amazed by what it provided.  Then, after a long interest in daguerreotypes, I bought one and my small obsession with collecting them began.  Along with the collecting so did the thrust for knowledge about the history, and the process.  Through all of that exploration I branched out into ferrotypes, and wanted to learn to make them.  I bought my first vintage plate camera for thousands less than my first Nikon D2h!  We are talking real history and value in the physical object, an object that was made of wood and brass and made a unique image that was meant to be hand.  They are a unique image that had substantial physical weight compared to a paper print, and a look that is unmistakable.  Making an image on metal with a wooden box with a 150 year old lens on it, light,  and a mixture of chemicals that put me on every government watch list was pure alchemy.

It was not long before I was thinking about how I could mix digital and ferrotypes together, the idea being to make ferrotypes that would be very difficult if not impossible with large plate cameras.  From this my current Iraq project was born.  I get great joy in mixing digital with ferrotypes because I am using each to make what I want, I am not hung up on which is better or trying to be a process puritan.  Living history is not what drives me to create ferrotypes, but the quest to make something that is “real” and will stand the test of time in an age when so much is temporary.  I want to bring more craftsmanship into the creating of my vision, and the ferrotype processes melded well with who and what I am.

So there ya go, it’s rough and has some gaps in it and its not written well,  but maybe you have some idea to why I have chosen to work with ferrotypes.


~ by Phil Nesmith on July 11, 2007.

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