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‘A magical thing’

MSU professor brings modern images to life with 150-year-old technique

By Sue Sitter - | Jun 12, 2021

Sue Sitter/PCT Ryan Stander, a Minot State University associate professor of art and wet plate collodion photographer, focuses his camera on a subject.

Visitors to the Prairie Village Museum had an opportunity June 5 to have their portraits made using a process more familiar to their ancestors in the mid-1800s.

Ryan Stander, an artist and associate professor of art at Minot State University, set up a small photography studio in the museum’s gallery and created images on metal using the wet plate collodion process, a photography method popular between the late 1850s through 1880s. Visitors had the opportunity to see their images form on the 4×5-inch plates beneath running water before the plates received a thin coating of shellac to preserve them.

Early settlers or Native American tribes may have encountered traveling photographers using the process to record life on the prairie during that era. These photographers used horse-drawn wagons that doubled as darkrooms to produce the photos, called ambrotypes when printed on glass and tintypes when printed on tin. The time-sensitive process required ready access to materials to develop the photos, Stander said.

“This process needs to be done right next to the darkroom,” Stander said. “There’s a great photograph by Roger Fenton of his assistant sitting on a wet plate wagon. It’s a big van kind of thing they pulled by horse and they moved everything with that.”

“This process was invented by Frederick Scott Archer in 1851,” Stander explained. “It’s the second major process that was used commercially.”

Stander said wet plate collodion prints followed the popular daguerreotypes, invented in the 1830s by Louis Daguerre. Stander said that in the 1850s, “collodion came in and became that next commercial process because it was cheaper and less toxic.”

“So, that’s the way it went until about around 1895 or so when George Eastman developed dry plate process and film,” Stander said. “Somewhere around then, maybe 1880, the dry plate methods were invented. It’s a similar process but it didn’t require the darkroom right there. You could go out and take a picture, come back and process it later.”

For Stander’s demonstration at the museum, his darkroom was a small tent-like structure standing next to a case holding Queen Victoria’s dress in the museum gallery. “The process involves either a piece of glass or mirror or Plexiglass – today it’s trophy aluminum,” Stander explained.

“It can be done on glass and called ambrotypes or tin for tintypes,” Stander said of the process. “Those are the two branches. There’s a little chemistry variation between the two but basically, they’re the same process.”

“To do this, you form the collodion, which is ether and a bromide salt typically. You pour it onto the plate and it starts to set up and get sticky as the ether evaporates. It forms a skin on the surface of whatever you’re going to print on. It goes into silver nitrate for about three minutes, then the halide ions from the silver and the bromide connect so that silver soaks into that sticky collodion.”

“Then,” Stander added, “you pull the plate out after three minutes and it’s light-sensitive. Then it can respond to light and it has to be handled in the darkroom.” Stander said next, “it gets put into a special plate holder that gets put into the back of the camera. Then, we go over to the camera, pop the flash to make the image – I use strobe flashes and others use natural ultraviolet light (from the sun).”

Stander said photos taken in natural light have exposure times that can last “anywhere from just a couple of seconds to fifteen seconds where the subject has to stay still.”

The image then goes to the darkroom for development.

“A developer is put on, washed off and then put into a fixer. There, the image reverses,” Stander said. “That’s the really fun part to watch, to be present for. You see it go in and it’s all blue and the person looks weird and all of a sudden, that image comes out and comes alive. It’s hard to understand until you actually see it, but people are just so excited to see that image emerge out of the blue.”

“I guess it’s like the traditional dark room where you put a piece of paper into a developer and it’s just blank,” Stander said. “Then, it slowly comes out. It’s kind of a magical thing.”

Stander uses a 1930s-model Deardorff field camera for his work. “I bought it from Dan Smith who lives just north of Rugby,” Stander said. “He sold it to me and I put a new bellows on it. The lens on it is probably from the 1890s and that was given to me by Shane Balkowitsch, the photographer from Bismarck. This one can do two different sizes. I’m doing 4×5 photos today. It’s a beautiful camera. It’s fun to play with,” he added.

Other equipment Stander uses includes a plate holder from Poland. Stander said he’s used vintage parts before, combining them with other pieces printed for him by a friend with a 3-D printer. “It’s an interesting crossover point of technology,” Stander said.

“In my studio in Minot, I have an 8×10 plate, so I can go larger. I can shoot all the same sizes on that one but it’s big and not conducive to travel,” Stander added, smiling.

Originally from Iowa, Stander completed undergraduate college coursework before attending the University of North Dakota for graduate school.

“I have a Masters in Fine Arts from UND,” Stander said, describing how his art has evolved. “I did digital art. I got tired of sitting at a computer editing digital photos. So, I started doing more print making and started learning historical processes like Van Dyke (a process creating prints in brown ink) and cyanotype (a process traditionally used for blueprints and images in blue ink).”

“That kind of started my interest in handmade photographs again. I just liked doing more physical work,” Stander said. “I met Shane Balkowitsch last month from Bismarck, he came up, did a demo and a show of his work at Minot State. I thought it was pretty cool and seems really hard.”

Stander said he also attended workshops in Chicago on an invitation from a former art professor at UND. “I’ve been learning ever since,” Sander said.

“There’s something about that process, doing it by hand – that unexpected piece,” Stander said. “It’s more temperamental, but also more mysterious. With digital, you’ve got the image, you print it out and that’s just not as exciting to me.”

“In the past 30 to 40 years, photographers have been rediscovering these processes, especially you see that as digital took off,” Stander said. “I think that’s true of a lot of photographers who work in this process. They want to do something the others aren’t doing.”

“All of those processes have been growing and are being rediscovered and reinvented. So, they’re not just doing things that photographers did back then,” Stander said. “The real artists are still trying to use that process to do something new.”

Some of Stander’s work went on display in the museum gallery at the beginning of June. Pieces include photographs imprinted on mirrors visible through windows on the sides of wooden boxes.

“I use mirrors, colored Plexiglass, colored metals,” Stander said of his media. “Some of my pieces that aren’t here are more sculptural. They’re stacks of glass. One has eight sheets of glass and they’re leaning so it looks like it’s going to tip over. But when you look down, you see through it and see all these faces. You see this community of people.”

“I feel like in doing those things, I can say things a single portrait doesn’t. And so, even the pieces here are in a series. They’re not just a single photograph. All of them have different ideas.”

Stander said he often collaborates with artists, some of whom are students at MSU. “There’s one series in particular that’s really kind of collaborative. He had a couple of ideas; he was a student named Josh Strong. He’s biracial. Last summer, he was really working through being white and black. So, we started making plates. We just laid them out and the rest of the work kind of emerged from that. It was really fun to work with him as he was doing this internal wrestling with his racial identity. It was pretty remarkable to be a part of that. And then, to get to make art about that with him was really cool.”

Some of Strong’s pieces are on the walls of the Prairie Village Museum’s gallery.

Stander said the appeal of the collodion process “still comes back to the mystery of this process. Collodion looks like no other photographic process.”

“It has the most detail, when you get a really great lens and the sharpness you see and the detail in a person’s face even more than with your digital shots,” Stander added. “They have this incredible depth of field where your eyes can be focused and it just fades so softly out of focus if you have these historic lenses. It’s such a beautiful thing.”

Stander’s work appears in the Prairie Village Museum gallery during June. Also appearing in the gallery are works created by birch bark biting, or mazinibaganjigan, from Turtle Mountain area artist Denise Lajimadiere.

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