Wet plates and motivation over coffee – an interview with Elijah Clarke by Greg Williamson

5 years ago, FSC members Greg Williamson and Neal Thorley started the “NQ Film Photography” Group on Facebook. They had no idea it would grow into such an active group of film photographers. Some of those photographers have since joined the FSC. Greg is planning to interview those members for the FSC website. This is the first of those interviews.

14th June 2019 Specialty Coffee Trader

Elijah Clarke is a photographer based in Townsville, North Queensland. I first met him a couple of years ago when he was a university student and just getting into shooting film. I was immediately impressed with the energy with which he approaches his work. Recently we met for a coffee and chat. 

Elijah Clarke - photo by Wing Hong Leung

Elijah Clarke - photo by Wing Hong Leung

Greg: Where shall we start? You’ve been messing around with alternative processes; What shall we call it? Historical processes.

Elijah: Different processes? You’re welcome to choose.

G: Different? Well, how did you get into that? When I met you, you were a student at JCU. What was that course?

E: So I studied a Bachelor of Creative Media Arts at James Cook University, majoring in photography. So, although I was into a lot of things such as film photography thanks to you guys, there wasn't much of an analogue movement in the course. It was mainly digital. All the tasks were set so you had to complete them and they didn't really care what process you used so I thought, that’s great, I can use these film processes.

G: As long as you could do it within the time.

E: Exactly, and price range as well. That’s another one I was kind of scratching my head about. A big project that I started working on was with my Mamiya RB67; and then, that went well. All the lecturers loved it, I enjoyed working on it, so I thought, next step is maybe something a bit bigger.

G: What was the 67 project?

E: That was “A Dying Feeling”.

G: Ah yes, you produced a book.

Cover of Elijah’s book,  A Dying Feeling

Cover of Elijah’s book, A Dying Feeling

E: That’s correct, one copy, out of one. I haven't really finished it yet. I’m not sure if I will or not. I don't know. I’m not too happy with some of the images.

G: There were some double exposures, multiple exposures?

E: All of them were double exposures. Basically looking at the themes of death and how different people perceive it, and the result being either positive or negative. Just a lot of different life experiences, cultures, and things such as age, wealth, sex, lived experience. And looking at a lot of factors and saying, maybe this person might see death in this way.  So I’d just chat to them - to my models, and I might say “I think you fit this”, and we’d have a big conversation beforehand.

Photo by Elijah Clarke, from  A Dying Feeling

Photo by Elijah Clarke, from A Dying Feeling

G: So they were all portraits.

E: Yeah, they were all portraits; I’d say borderline environmental portraits. It wasn't just a straight up facial shot of a person. They all entailed something to do with the scene which would be representative of what they were feeling.

Photo by Elijah Clarke, from  A Dying Feeling

Photo by Elijah Clarke, from A Dying Feeling

G: And then there’s the project, “Enterprise of Despair”. Tell me a bit about how you conceived that.

E: Basically my first thought was I need to make tintypes and I’d love to do it for a uni project. So I started researching a bit about the project and I traveled to Canada and chatted to someone over there about it and he said, “Make sure you do a course in it.” So when I got back to Australia I booked flights down to Melbourne, visited Ellie Young at Gold Street Studios and worked through a workshop there, which was great. I learnt a lot of what I needed to know and then when I got back to my hometown I purchased all the chemistry, waited for that to arrive and then started on the project. But the idea of the project didn’t come around until a bit before I ordered the chemistry but after the workshop. 

G: So you had the idea in mind that you wanted to use tintype but the project hadn’t really taken hold.

 E: I had a sort of basic idea. Originally I was doing it with an idea about depression in the workplace, and the workplace occasionally being the reason for mental health issues. Some of my friends have been through similar things. I thought, okay I can make something of this, and I did a big outline as one of my uni subjects required me to and so I focused on it. Then I think I spent about two weeks just nailing in on what I needed to focus on, what kind of people I could focus on, what kind of characters I could draw from.

8x10 Tintype by Elijah Clarke, from  Enterprise of Despair

8x10 Tintype by Elijah Clarke, from Enterprise of Despair

G: This is interesting. How do you plan a project like that? I’m pretty random. I think I just go out on the street with a camera. I think any project I’ve ever done is just by chance.

E: I think setting deadlines for the project is really important and having a basic understanding or idea in the back of your head. I think all great projects start from an original idea not from great works. They start from a single idea. That’s what you need to focus on, that’s where you need to direct your project. So for these things I had my deadline in place. I had my uni deadline for an exhibition. I didn’t so much enjoy a lot of aspects of my uni degree. But a lot of it was helpful so I could put all these projects on these timelines, make these deadlines, and say okay I’m happy to make something from this. So that was handy. Sorry what was the question again?

G: About planning a project I think the discipline of having a deadline.

E: Just having a deadline for yourself. I think motivation is really important. I find once I’m motivated towards something I’m pretty switched on and I make sure the thing happens. I think the shooting of the actual project didn’t last too long. I spent about two weeks shooting it. That worked well. I had five different models lined up; models or just people that I was photographing.

8x10 Tintype by Elijah Clarke, from  Enterprise of Despair

8x10 Tintype by Elijah Clarke, from Enterprise of Despair

G: Alright let’s talk a bit about the process

E: I usually like to start off by setting up my camera before I set up my darkroom workspace. For these ones I was using your lovely 8x10 Chamonix. So I set up my camera on the tripod, set up the lighting, set up the backdrop, and kind of setup a stool in place where I’d like my model to be. Give it a rough focus and then I usually move on to my darkroom, which is my bathroom.

G: Which is your family bathroom.

E: Yes family bathroom. I’ve given everyone the all clear, no one to come in. I have a big thing to block out all the light from the windows but I’ve still got a vent so air can come and go.

G: Is it particularly necessary with this process?

E: I’d say so yeah. It’s important to have a flow of air because you’re dealing with potentially dangerous chemicals.

Then I’ve got a big bench-top thing which I put over my hand basin which gives me enough working space for a lot of things.

So I’m bringing my chemicals out, put them in their places. Usually the silver nitrate I keep on the floor so that I don’t tip it over. I keep it in a little nook. Then other things, I just place around everywhere.

 After that I’ll usually get my model to come in, so I’ll just wait around for them. Everything is all set-up so they come in. I do a fine focus with the camera then I head back in for about 10 minutes prepping the plate. So I’ll just say feel free to have your phone on you and just chill out in this rough area for 10 minutes. Then I go and prep the plate.

8x10 Tintype by Elijah Clarke, from  Enterprise of Despair

8x10 Tintype by Elijah Clarke, from Enterprise of Despair

G: So you leave them sitting there for 10 minutes. How did they cope with that?

E: Usually my father chats to the person. He’s there studying in the same area. He just chats to them and keeps them comfortable I suppose.

G: So into the dark room you go.

E: Yes into the darkroom. I can still have the lights on. I make sure the red safe-light is on standby, but the overhead light is still on. The first thing I get is the sheet of aluminum. One of the sides of the plate of aluminum is just straight black and it’s got a cover on it so I peel away the plastic cover so that it’s not scratched.

The first chemical I use is collodion which I get premixed from Gold Street Studios. Some of the things come in powder form like the silver nitrate. I have to mix it up. But the collodion is is premixed. I have to cover each corner and there isn’t a lot of it but it has to be a certain thickness on each plate and I make sure every corner is covered and then I pour the excess back into the bottle.

G: You hold it like a waiter’s tray don’t you?

E: Yes like a tray but not just flat. I have to turn it on each corner so it spreads. So once that’s done I switch off all the lights except the safe-light and I put all of the silver nitrate into my little tank. I’ve got a little tank that holds the 8x10 plate. Then I dunk my plate in for I think it’s three minutes. After that I dry the back off, leave it to drip a minute then put the plate into the plate holder, switch on the lights bring the plate holder to the camera. I do another focus put the holder in the camera and inform the model that I’m taking the photo now. Afterwards I ask if the model wants to come and watch the actual image develop because it isn’t something that most people see.

G: What sort of speed are we looking at?

E: So with these plates they change depending on how old the chemistry is. I’d say about 0.75 ISO. You need a fair bit of light so that’s why a lot of tintypes you see have that shallow depth of field. You need a wide aperture. You don’t see tintypes that are incredibly sharp throughout the whole focus area.

8x10 Tintype by Elijah Clarke, from  Enterprise of Despair

8x10 Tintype by Elijah Clarke, from Enterprise of Despair

G: I’ve seen your tintypes. They were the first tintypes you made. I’ve seen so many tintypes with gross artefacts, but yours and very good how did you do that?

E: The thing is, doing this course at Gold Street Studios and with having a professional like Ellie, a great teacher, teaching me how to do this; she basically instilled in me from the start you can get artifacts, you can get these things but here’s how to remove them. And I found that important so I can be selective in what I want to keep and how I can make a clean plate. I’m not the greatest at it but she’s given me a lot of confidence to say I don’t think this should be here, and how to remove it.

G: I was at the exhibition when you won the prize.

E: The prize wasn’t so much for that body of work it was more for all of uni. There’s a couple of components to our uni degree: photography, videography, and design. I studied a major of photography so that award was for my work all throughout the course. it was nice to have.

Back to the process after the photos had been taken I switch off the lights again and use the developer which is a premix again from Gold Street.

I take the plate out of the plate holder in the dark room with the with the safe-light on. Taking the plate out of the holder sometimes causes little scratches. All of this process is done with gloves by the way because silver nitrate leaves a bit of a mark on the skin. I remember the first time I did this I was left with marks all over my hands. The next day I showed my lecturer and she said, “So, trying tintypes?”.

Then with the developer, it’s similar to the collodion base, you hold the plate like a waiter’s tray. You pour it so just covers the plate with developer and it reacts quite fast. It’s not too expensive so you can use a lot of it. It’s almost like water - it runs. So I just put it straight on, just do a quick little turnaround. I’m watching in the red light to see when I can see any kind of image and as soon as that happens I pour all of the excess developer off and then dump the plate into water which acts as a stop bath. I usually have two trays of water.

G: So you stop the development when you first see an image?

E: Yes. So then I can switch on the room light and I can see an image and it’s a negative at that stage. Then I’ll bring it to the fixer. The fixer basically inverts the negative making it a positive and it’s just an interesting process you have to see it. It’s just crazy to see the transformation take place. It takes about five minutes. Then you take it out put it in some water baths to rinse it off and then you can remove little artefacts with cotton buds. You have to be very careful with this or you can scratch off the collodion.

Once it’s fixed and dry I can varnish it. That’s the final step. The varnish is similar to the collodion. It’s a thicker liquid. I warm the plate with a hairdryer before coating it evenly with varnish in much the same way as the collodion.

8x10 Tintype by Elijah Clarke, from  Enterprise of Despair

8x10 Tintype by Elijah Clarke, from Enterprise of Despair

You have to be careful with the varnish. I recently discovered that my varnish was out of date. I made up some little 4x5 plates to keep practising with the method. I spent the day making them and I thought, okay I’ll finish them tomorrow. And the next day I went to varnish my best try from the collection, put the varnish on and within two seconds the whole image dissolved into nothing. So, you have to be careful. Adding some distilled water to the varnish can stop it from removing the image.

There are a fair few factors involved in this process which is why I enjoy it so much.

G: Are you planning some more?

Yeah definitely. I’ve got a big exhibition that I’m working towards next year but I think I’ll be using ambrotypes for that. They are basically the same as tintypes except instead of using a metal plate, you use a glass plate. Clear glass you can see right through it and it almost acts as a negative when you look at it with light behind it. But as soon as you put a black sheet behind it, it appears as a positive. So that’s going to be interesting. I’m just waiting for a part for my camera.

G: Any other projects in mind?

E: Yep. Got a book coming along. Still haven’t set myself a deadline for it, but I’ve given this about six months give or take. So that’s shaping up to be nice. Still in the creation stages of it. Once I finish that I’ll send it to someone to edit all the text and a designer as well to make sure I’m doing everything correctly.

G: Do you see yourself using any other techniques or more traditional photography?

E: In the future yes. This book I’m working towards is all using film - medium format and 35mm. I’ve been experimenting. I’ve been shooting a lot of Polaroids lately - peel aparts. But for sure I don’t feel like stopping. I still haven’t tried cyanotype I haven’t tried a lot of printing methods - Van Dyke brown. So there’s heaps of things I have yet to explore. Photography has many elements to it, there are many ways of making images. I am lucky enough to have the knowledge and resources (when I can afford them) to create these alternative images. Growing up with digital cameras has made me bored of photography, getting to know and research the creation of a photo by using a diverse range of chemicals has definitely peaked my interest.

LINKS

Elijah Clarke’s site.

Video of the process.

Gold Street Studios.

Specialty Coffee Trade.

Connect

Film photographer Greg Williamson is based in Australia. You can see more of his work on his Flickr or Instagram.

Film photographer Wing Hong Leung is based in Australia. You can see more of his work on his Instagram.