On our recent visit to Gettysburg for the 150th anniversary of the battle, we had our 1863 style portrait done at Rob Gibson’s Photographic Studio.
We arrived for our July 3rd appointment and as they dressed my wife in her period clothes, I was outfitted in Union Officer attire. We had chosen an authentic wet plate photograph format used for photographs in the 1860’s. Even though I had done black and white photography, development, and printing for twenty-five years, I wasn’t familiar with the wet plate format.
I thought a photographic plate would have been commercially produced to take the photograph. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I watched as Mr. Gibson poured a solution onto a black metal plate and let it spread around to form a uniform covering on the plate. After asking what it was, he informed me it was collodion, a form of nitrocellulose; the type of film used for years in early motion pictures.
After starting the film coating process, the plate must have silver reacted with the collodion, exposed for the photograph, developed, and made into a positive image within ten minutes while the plate remains moist, hence the name “wet plate”.
Mr. Gibson posed us in the skylight lit studio, and framed and focused the period plate camera. He retrieved the wet plate from the small darkroom bench in the corner of the studio, and placed it in the camera. While we were holding perfectly still, he removed the lens cap from the lens for a fifteen second exposure and then placed the lens cap back on the lens. He removed the wet plate from the camera and developed the plate. In a few minutes we were looking at the negative image on the plate. He then developed the plate into the finished positive image as we watched it change before our eyes.
It was fascinating to see the whole production of the wet plate from start to finish, with our photograph as the result.
With all of the sights of visiting Gettysburg, this was one the highlights of the trip for me to have the wet plate photograph produced and see how it was done through every step of the process.
I would think a trip to Gettysburg would not be complete without having a wet plate photograph portrait produced by Rob Gibson as the ultimate way to remember one’s visit to this historic city.