Be Our Guest: Analog Instant Gratification

In Guest

Leilani Thornton Tuttle and I met on Flickr ages ago, and I’ve always been struck by her openness: to people, to new experiences – to everything.

Years ago, when we both found ourselves fumbling around with the same model of Nikon film camera, she arranged to call me up to talk through our issues. The warmth and ease of her voice over the line, like we’d known each other for ages was matched by the incredible hug I received from her last year when she travelled to D.C. It’s hard to come face to face with the love and openness Leilani puts out in the world and  not respond in kind, even for a buttoned-up introvert like me. 

When I think of Leilani’s photography, the  subjects vary far more widely than they do for most. My brain jumps in staccato beats: from wide open winter fields; to the murmurations of birds; to elaborate, folktale inspired portrait collaborations; to travel documentation; to self-portraiture; to American roadside oddities, to candids of children in magical play. Nevertheless there’s always something that makes Leilani’s images hers. I’ve come to think of her secret sauce as soul. I think Lei sees a bit deeper and truer than the rest of us, and she uses her camera to bring the souls she discovers – uncovers – in those depths to light.

Despite all of her variety, and Lei’s natural openness, nothing in her past archive could have offered up the clue that she’d find herself where she is right now in her creative process – practicing wet plate collodion photography. It’s my pleasure to let Leilani share with us how this came to pass.

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And it’s my pleasure to share with you that wet plate collodion photography actually found me, in a sense. I didn’t search for it, it simply landed on my path. While I love creating a serious soulful portrait with a Nikon DSLR, a few years ago I became fascinated with the TinType phone camera app. I was drawn to the soulful effect on the eyes and shallow depth of field. More than ever, I could really feel the soul in a portrait.

After a period of using the TinType app and posting my images online, around August 2018,  a photography friend noticed my love of this style and directed me to another local photographer, Earl Richardson, who was making the actual, physical tintypes, also known as wet plate collodion.

I immediately found Earl on Instagram and sent him a message expressing my interest. Earl responded and invited me over for my first tintype portrait experience. As soon as he made my portrait I was hooked. That same day, I found myself gazing into the glass of his 8×10 view camera and exquisite 1869 Dallmeyer lens making a portrait of him, with little more instruction than to make sure his eye was in focus.

Over the next 8 months Earl shared his knowledge of wet plate photography and we made many plates together. He walked me through every step of the process: setting up the subject, metering the light, pouring collodion onto the plates; focusing the camera; developing and fixing the exposed plate. He put up with my endless questions about his alchemy.

In March 2019, Earl loaned me his book, “Chemical Pictures” by Quinn Jacobson, his spare 4×5 large format camera and tripod with an 1870 Darlot lens, an extra Speedotron powerpack and studio lights, starter bottles of collodion, silver nitrate, developer, fixer, varnish and a stack of 75 aluminum plates on which to practice. I wasn’t sure if I’d won the lottery or was in the midst of a magical dream. As a result of the remarkably generous gifts of my brilliant, kind mentor, I began making wet plates in the basement. Alone, but bursting with excitement, passion and great trepidation.

From an observer’s perspective, all of that enthusiasm was conveyed from the very first image you shared, and as you’ve shared more, I haven’t seen it lessen. It’s as if you continue to go deeper.  How has the process evolved for you since you’ve begun?

I can’t explain the elation I feel when making wet plates. The thrill of getting one chance to make an image on an aluminum plate by carefully pouring collodion on the plate, sliding it swiftly and smoothly into the silver bath, connecting with and framing the subject, popping the light to expose it, watching it develop and then seeing an image magically appear in the fixer is addictive, spellbinding and difficult. It’s analog instant gratification, but it’s not for the faint of heart.

Even when a plate is far from technically pleasing, I cherish it. I completed about 150 plates from March through September on the 4×7 camera photographing myself, my husband, family and friends. 

In September 2019 after I purchased a 5×7 view camera and 1887 Voigtlander lens from Earl, I stepped up my game and my passion for this art burned even brighter. It also presented a new learning curve. Previously I’d made photographs exclusively in natural light. Now I was using studio lights, exposing silver and light on ISO 2 emulsion and working with temperamental chemicals that needed to be mixed and maintained periodically.

Earl has told me that I’ll need to make over 500 plates before I’m a seasoned wet plate artist, and even at that point there will be days when the chemicals go awry and I’m left feeling frustrated, wondering which chemical or technique caused the problem. To date, I’ve made 210 plates. I have so much more to learn and experience.  

What do you have planned next? 

I’d love to learn more about exposing wet plates outdoors. I’ve made a few plates in our backyard, but one day I’ll have a portable darkroom that will fit in the back of our 4Runner. The lure of natural light is calling.

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Thank you for sharing words and images with us today, Leilani. Wherever this work takes you, I have a feeling it will only continue to be wonderful.

You can follow Leilani’s photography here.
And her mentor, Earl Richardon’s, photography on instagram or his website

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7 Comments

  1. Such beautiful work. I loved reading about your learning process!

    • Thank you, Lucy. I still can’t believe I have a wet plate studio in my basement. Pinch me!

  2. These portraits are haunting, thank you so much for sharing your work!

    • It’s the 1887 lens. Can you imagine all the souls captured in her depths?

    • Yes! That’s how I feel with every single plate I pour, expose, develop and fix. I’m high on ether with silver stained fingers here and there! It’s a wild ride. So happy for your support xo

  3. Absolutely stunning work. Beautiful work. 1887 lens? I wish we could see all the images this lens has captured over the years.

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