Sean Kochel and the Vanished Art of Wet Plate Photography


Sean Kochel is a resolute believer that photography is an instrument of fine art and not merely a means of documentary.

As one of a handful of contemporary American practitioners of the long-lost methodology of wet plate collodion, his work reveals an artist deliberate in his practice and harboring a deep appreciation of photography’s roots.

Invented in the 1840s as a medical dressing to cement and seal wounds, collodion is a cellulose derivative. A few years later, Frederick Scott Archer introduced the wet plate collodion technique to be used in photography. Archer made prints from grainless glass plate negatives by utilizing bromide, iodide, or chloride salts suspended in collodion.

Thanks to its fine detail, the innovation transcended mere documentation and captured the essence of the sitter’s character. Wet plate use peaked between 1850 and 1880 (in 1860s Civil War America, Matthew Brady and others took tintypes of the soldiers to send back home to their families), eventually being phased out by dry plate photography, which shortly became film.

“I first became interested in wet plate photographs when I was a young child,” said Kochel. “My dad and I would look at the photography of Darius Kinsey, a well-known photographer of the Northwest, who took photos of logging camps and locomotives during the 1890s through the turn of the century. About a year ago, I was thinking, ‘Why do those old photos have so much more character and quality than the photographs of today?’ I decided I would read up on the old process as much as possible, and try my hand at it.”

One of Sean Kochel's collodion wet-plate photographs.

Always a student of photography and its evolution into an established medium of fine art, a few years ago Kochel bought a long-forgotten box camera from the 1800s and rebuilt it. This undertaking helped him better understand the chemistry of the wet plate collodion process, and jumpstarted his foray into wet plate photography as a business.

Since then, Kochel – a bit of a modern day Renaissance Man (he works as an apiarist and cigar-box guitar maker, too) – has reconstructed a 1800s tailboard 5″ x 7″ camera and acquired several old antique brass lenses.

“The great part about the old-time process,” says Kochel, “is that there are so many mysterious variables throughout, so you don’t know what you are going to get until the very end. The process itself takes about ten minutes from the time you take the photo to the time you develop it. Exposures can range anywhere from a few seconds to twenty seconds or more.”

Wet plate photography is an exhibition in independence and exactitude. The course starts in a dark room, where the photographer empties the collodion in the silver bath. Next, it is positioned in the plate receptacle. Shortly thereafter, the plate is removed, and the surplus of silver nitrate solution stuck to the rear of the plate is rinsed.

“Once the reaction is complete,” says Kochel, “the plate is removed from the silver nitrate solution and exposed in a camera while still wet. The plate loses sensitivity as it dries, requiring it to be coated and sensitized immediately. It must be developed moist, using a solution of iron sulfate, acetic acid, and alcohol in water.”

One of Sean Kochel's collodion wet-plate photographs.

The photographer then makes the exposure and covers the plate with the minimum amount of developer. Then the photo is put through the process called fixing. Two fixing systems exist: one uses hypo or sodium thiosulfate; the other utilizes cyanided potassium. Coating and developing must be completed before the plate dries.

“It’s really a race against the clock and time,” says Kochel. “You’ve got about ten minutes to complete the plate.”

For Kochel, wet plate photography makes for a pleasurable procedure and the shadowy, mysterious imagery it evokes and conveys brightens the artist’s inventive fortitude. Indeed, it allows him to marry his craft with an intense love for history and his sincerely rooted expressions will not be lost on audiences. He feels that wet plate photography captures the truest qualities of the craft and fosters a spiritual connection between product and process.

“The progression captures the romantic idea of times and crafts gone by,” says Kochel. “It’s amazing that something so simple can be so laborious and precise. Back in Archer’s day photography was all trial and error and self-reliance. There is a wonder to capturing images that can’t be replicated by modern technology.”

Sean Kochel’s 19th-century-style wet-plate photography is on display through June in the Swift Building, 315 S. Fourth Street East.


Missoula writer Brian D'Ambrosio, his dog, and a beautiful view.

Brian D’Ambrosio is a Missoula writer, editor, instructor, and media consultant. D’Ambrosio’s recent articles have been published in local, regional, and national publications, including High Country News, USA Today, Wisconsin Trails, Bark Magazine, Montana Magazine, and Backpacker Magazine. His latest book about legendary vigilante screen actor Charles Bronson, Menacing Face Worth Millions, A Life of Charles Bronson, will be released this summer.