Kirsch is a long time Civil War reenactor photographer who works for Camp Chase Gazette.
His work emulated
Now he is into the true wet plate processes and honing his skills to get closer to the true historic perspective.
John Coffers Workshop
by Fritz Kirsch
In a spring issue of Collodian Journal I read that John Coffer was holding a workshop in the field at his homestead in Dundee, New York. I had met John twelve years ago. I had seen examples of his wet plate photography and was impressed by his results.
John Coffer has to be credited as the father of the wet plate collodian revival. He was in the forefront of practitioners while others were discovering their first copy of The Silver Sunbeam.
For the past eighteen years I have used modern methods to obtain nineteenth century images. I have been able to produce albumen style prints, ambrotypes and even tintypes from products obtainable through catalogs and camera stores. Purists might scoff but they were passing as creditable products among reenactors and living historians.
There was always the curiosity to do it by original means, however. Coffers workshop seemed my best plan to do just that. John and I corresponded by letter. He has no phone. At times that was frustrating because modern Americans are used to instantaneous contacts and immediate results. Over a period of time I gleaned the information I needed to put my kit together for the workshop. At least, I thought I had.
John suggested the names of chemical suppliers from the Collodian Journal. From these sources I could lay my hands on what seemed like exotic potions. When I saw that I would be handling cyanide I really cringed. I felt like my death might be imminent from such toxic substances. Later I was surprised to find how manageable they could be even without gloves.
Johns home and workshop are at his farm in Dundee, New York. This is a rural farm village in the wine producing Finger Lake region of the state. Other than growing grapes, nothing much ever happens there except for Johns amazing workshop!
John advertises his workshop as in the field, it literally is. Johns forty nine acre farm is the setting for the classes, that, and the front porch of his little log cabin. Loring Hill, a college professor from a Pennsylvania workshop and I were his only students. This was great for us because it gave us the individualized instruction we were looking for.
Bob Hendricks and his wife Dawn were on hand as well. Bob is Johns apprentice. He told me that he was retired. From his constant string of activities, including his wet plate studies, he is busier than any Florida retiree that I am familiar with.
Our first order of business was to bring out our equipment. My camera was an old Corona 5x7. I had Doug Jordan make some alterations to old glass plate holders, but John pronounced them unacceptable. I was a little embarrassed not to have the right tools, but my disappointment vanished when the master said that I might use one of his cameras with an original wet plate back.
Loring had spectacular stuff. He brought out an old Kodak 2D. His lens was a C.C. Harrison that caused streaks of envy to cross Johns face. The camera back was a beautiful manufactured woodcrafters masterpiece by Tony Miller. Tony also advertises in the Collodian Journal. Now I am next on his list for a back to fit the Corona. The whole presentation of gleaming brass lens, sparkling gold corners, bells and whistles made for an intriguing display. The camera sat on a tripod made by Tony that anchored the Kodak 2D only by the little framed platform that fit snugly against it. Green envy was the color for the day from the rest of us.
Our first exercise was to sit on the porch with a glass cutter and to practice cutting the glass into quarter plate sections. I felt awkward despite the handy little tool John gave me with its own supply of lubricant. Either my cuts werent straight enough or deep enough. Like any mechanical technique its a matter of practice and many trials and errors.
Our next attempt at the game of trial and error was to work with a bottle of old red collodian and to practice pouring. Johns example was flawless of course. We watched the liquid flow smoothly from one corner to the next till the entire surface was evenly coated by his regulated rocking motion. Then the liquid was poured off into the bottle then tapped to get the last ridge of collodian from the glass.
Error followed error on our parts until improvement came. John would then past judgment to let us know when we had graduated to the next step. Finally we were both ready to work with the good stuff.
I photographed John against his canvas backdrop. I believe Loring did either me or John. The sequence didnt matter for our first efforts were pretty terrible. When the exposures that lasted approximately seven seconds in the open shade were made, we stepped up to Johns portable darkroom to begin processing.
The black box is about forty inches long and twenty inches high. It stands comfortably waist high and to the top of our head. It sits on a tripod of legs than can be removed for travel. Inside there are two boxes, one for the silver nitrate and one for the cyanide solution used to fix the image.
The box has a long sleeve like tube made from rubberized canvas. It goes over the photographers head and body to shut out the light during processing. It folds up over the box top when not in use. There is a small amber glass window that is slid into place for the light sensitive steps. There is a bottle of collodian and one of developer inside. There are also two small trays for rinsing between pouring the developer and fixing the plate.
Getting the plate down into the pot bath smoothly without having it fall off the little dipper was tricky. Once I lost it entirely and had to call on John to rescue the thing for me. He was patient and came to my aid without ridicule. This is very important, for this novice felt extremely vulnerable because these steps were so unfamiliar.
Over the three day we were there are efforts began to improve as the pictures moved from fuzzy little blobs on glass or tin to bright clear acceptable photographs. I was fortunate enough to have two of Doug Jordans fancy reproduction thermoplastic frames with me for my finest results.
My best images were one of John, a self portrait, and one of an amazing new order Amish fellow who showed up on Johns doorstep as a friend of a friend. I knew that none of the Amish take kindly to photographs, but everyone else had wandered off. There I was standing with a wet plate in hand and no one to take pictures of. Jon, I said, I'm a Christian and youre a Christian. Its our Christian duty to help one another. And I could really use your assistance right about now. Please go over and sit there long enough for me to take this plate and make an exposure.
Ill pray about it, said Jon.
Good, I answered. Just make sure that its a prayer that lasts at least seven seconds and holds you real still. It was my best effort of the entire workshop and came out clear, crisp and professional.
Throughout the workshop John showed us all the basic processes of wet plate photography. We varnished ambrotypes and tintypes. If your fingers are heat sensitive be prepared to say ouch and hang in there. We made glass negatives and watched John go through the multiple steps necessary to coat art paper and make albumen prints.
We even watched the tedious procedure of coating tin with asphaltum in order to Japan the plates for tintypes. Unless youre an absolute purist or glutton for punishment, make life simple. Buy them from Mark Osterman and other advertisers in the Collodian Journal. Just finding a place to build an open fire to bake the plates can be a hassle in todays strict fire regulated town environments.
We left the workshop with a deep admiration for Johns purism. If the photographers of the mid 1800s did the work with glass funnels, bottles and dishes. John did the same. He sought no substitutes or short cuts.
Coffers workshop is worth the price of tuition. He is a patient teacher. He praises real success and comfortably corrects your mistakes. You leave with several examples of good images and the enthusiasm that you want to go home and continue your education.
As I left Johns place after three long days in the field I could hear Johns bull, Captain bellowing a farewell. John stood on the porch in his straw hat and Amish clothes making me feel like I had just left a friend with a valuable lesson to teach.