The System

My time in Louisiana during the month of June was about routine.  The first few days of work turned out rough because of a few issues, such a chemical, and just as importantly organizational.  Just because items are in the best location or packing for travel does not mean those are the best places for an optimum workflow.  Sure, sounds like common knowledge, and it is something that I thought about while packing, but it was not until I started working that I was able to determine the best “load plan” as we called it in the Army during a previous life.

Initially it took forever to set up once I located a site of interest.  Setting up the darkbox and chemicals, unpacking the camera, etc. just took too long.  Mixing chemicals and processing….well you get the idea. Many things had to be accomplished for each image and location which is difficult enough without having remember where something might be, or having related items located on different sides of the vehicle.  Over time the final system started to create itself as I worked day after day.  Equipment, chemicals, everything started to claim its own location as well as it’s position in the sequence of setting up and taking down.  The system of organization and employment could only be developed while actually working in the environment and with the specific vehicle that I had.  By the time that my last day had arrived, although the inside of the SUV (image before trip) looked like something a “horder” might drive, it was truly a well-functioning system.  It is easy to haul all of your stuff out and setup and make images when you are working on your time, but when you are dealing with subjects that may not be at the location long, like the Nord Sea for example, I found that speed (if you can use that word with wet collodion photography) was very important.

Equally important to the physical location things, and the order in which task were accomplished, was the prep work done at the end and/or beginning of each day.  One of the most important parts of my routine at camp was to make plates ready for the next day.  I had arrived with a good number of 5×7 and whole plate sized plates for the first week, with a resupply of glass in New Orleans strategically stashed at the University of New Orleans.  Upon arrival I discovered that my glass cleaning (very important to wet collodion work) had not been very successful, which with everything else was causing problems. So, all of my precleaned plates were recleaned at the end of each day.  Although, by trying different methods in the field, the cleaning issues would plaque me the entire trip.  One day, while working on a triptych, I discovered while trying to expose the last plate that the glass was just a little too big to fit in the holder.  As fate would have it, it was my last cleaned plate, and by the time I had another one ready to go the subject had moved.  Because of this event, along with recleaning the glass, the sizes were also rechecked when preparing material for the next day.  So you can see how experiences during the work helped to inform and modify the way that I was used to working.

I had planned to make more whole plate images than 5×7, but once I got out into the field and started working I got concerned about running out of ripe collodion to last the full duration of the trip.  Because of this concern, and fact that my darkbox was better suited to the smaller size, the strategic decision was made to work exclusively with the 5×7.  This choice meant that I quickly ran out of 5×7 plates that I had on board during the first week and had to sacrifice whole plates by recutting them.  The image above was made while cutting down whole plates for the next day.  This was done to save time and fuel that would have been burned going back to NOLA to resupply before the planned time.

In the end, I learned so much about working during a long-term event and what is needed.  I had worked with wet collodion in the field before, but not day after day after day after day after day in such a fluid environment.  The experience was almost overwhelming at times, being witness to such a big event, working out technical issues that could have killed the project, creating/adjusting my workflow, surviving the weather, and hoping to make images worth the massive amount of support that was provided, all add up to something that I will not soon forget.


~ by Phil Nesmith on August 21, 2010.

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