The History of Photography Comes Alive

Students in Mr. Leslie's Photography: Then and Now JTerm course watched history come alive on their recent, two-day trip to Rochester, NY.

Home of Eastman Kodak, Rochester has been a hub for photography since the artform's earliest days. Today, photographers and fans alike flock to the beautiful George Eastman Museum to explore the history of Kodak, the future of photography, and tour the lavish estate of the company's founder, George Eastman.

After learning about Eastman's life in a guided tour, Mr. Leslie's class was given an exclusive look behind the scenes. Students pored over the museum's early photographs, from precious daguerreotypes to large-format salted paper prints. An archivist donned fresh gloves as he handled priceless pieces and explained several types of early photography, including the once-popular wet-plate collodion print.

This format, ubiquitous in mid-19th Century portraiture, required the photographic material to be coated, sensitized, exposed, and developed while the plate was still wet, requiring skilled hands, quick work, and even an on-location darkroom. While this method largely fell out of favor by the 20th century, it recently experienced a resurgence in popularity among select photographic masters who love the method's warm, alluring aesthetic.

Mr. Leslie's students were fortunate to meet with two of these pioneers the very next morning when they traveled to the home and studio of Mark Osterman and France Scully-Osterman, a couple who travels the world to teach this delicate process. Credited as being some of the first adopters of modern wet-plate collodium photography, the photographers showed the students their collection of early photos and discussed the method's benefits and challenges.

Ms. Scully-Osterman then led the class to her third-floor studio, a sun-drenched room packed with oriental rugs, ornate artwork, and antique curiosities. Using the studio's natural light, she produced wet-plate photos for each of the students, explaining the process step-by-step as she masterfully developed each piece.

Through seeing it in action, students became excited about the process. They learned the medium's eccentricities, such as the fact that many photographers use cyanide to develop wet plate photos and that the process picks up only blue light. They asked questions throughout the development process and posed for each shot, remaining extremely still for 40-45 seconds, just like countless subjects once did 150 years ago.

Next week, students will use these techniques to create their very own wet-plate collodion prints. While they will not have George Eastman's expansive estate or the cozy Scully-Osterman Studio at their disposal, they will certainly employ enthusiasm, a knowledge of the process, and, hopefully, some old-fashioned beginner's luck.