Arts | Oregon

Giles Clement Practices Wet Plate Photography

OPB | May 22, 2013 7 a.m. | Updated: May 24, 2013 1:19 p.m.

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Portland photographer Giles Clement has fallen in love with an old medium — wet plate collodion photography — and it’s given him a renewed sense of creativity as an artist.

During many of his 12 years as a professional photographer, Clement shot images with a digital camera. Ultimately, he found the “perfection” of digital photos took some of the fun out of the experience.

Wet Plate Collodion Photographer Giles Clement

Wet Plate Collodion Photographer Giles Clement

Kayo Lackey / OPB

“Frankly, I was getting bored with digital,” Clement recalls. “Every time I’d take a digital [photo], I’d know exactly what I was going to get. I know I can get a perfect image.”

Clement wanted to try something that was more challenging, organic and hands-on, and that’s when he turned to wet plate collodion photography.

The process of wet plate photography was invented in 1851 and used until the early 1900s. Wet plate photographs are made with a piece of glass, tin or plastic with a collodion solution poured over it, which then is sensitized with silver to make an image on it.

“I like the aesthetic of it a lot,” says Clement. “I like how the images seem to be more live and … I guess more real than digital.”

It usually takes about 10 minutes for Clement to pour a plate, set up a camera, shoot and develop. “You have to work that quickly because the collodion will dry out and once the chemicals dry out it no longer works,” he explains, “so that’s why it’s called wet plate.”

“There’s so many steps involved in the process and its multiple chemicals, so if one thing goes wrong you’ve got to troubleshoot and it might be one of 10 different things,” he adds. “I have never seen a perfect [wet plate photo], but I like a lot about it. I like that it’s an imperfect medium. So, I think I was drawn to the imperfection of the medium and the challenge of it.”

Today when Clement takes portraits of clients, the experience is quite different from when he used to use his digital camera.

“It’s a collaboration between me and the subject … We are creating the image together in a way that is a lot more hands-on and a lot more difficult than the standard digital photo session would be.”

“They [his clients] see the image being made for them and … quite a few times something will screw up … we have to try again … and I think people like that,” adds Clement. “I like this because it is surprising. Every time I get a photo, it’s like a little rush, you know … I got it … cause it’s a lot of work, so it’s rewarding when you get it right.”

To learn more about Giles Clement, watch our Oregon Art Beat profile.

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