This photographer turned an RV into a 19th century-inspired mobile darkroom

“My photos will last at least 200 years,” says photographer Bill Hao, “but will the beauty in the photos still be there?”

In the age of cell phone cameras and Instagram filters, photography has never been more accessible or easier to produce. But photographer Bill Hao takes a much more difficult and older route to capture the beauty of Canada’s Rocky Mountains.

Until the COVID-19 pandemic, Hao spent 17 years running a travel company, a time when he was forced to photograph the Rockies. Now he devotes all his time to the craft using a 19th century photo-developing process called collodion wet plate photography.

The process requires taking and developing photos while you’re in the field, and to pull it off, Hao transformed a 50-seat tour bus into a mobile darkroom large enough to house the antique camera he built from scratch. had built.

In 2015, he started taking wet plate photos after hearing about it from old books and the internet. He started out a bit smaller: his portable darkroom consisted of a collapsible wooden box that could be used both for the development process and for transporting materials. He then moved to a Dodge minibus with the two back rows of seats removed before finally switching to the bus last summer after eight months of work.

Hao’s renovations include separating the darkroom from the rest of the bus, adding water tanks, a sink, a water hose connected to an electric pump, and red lights that allow him to see what he’s doing in the darkroom without ruining his photos as he develops them. He also had to build large developing tanks to soak the windows he uses in the necessary chemicals.

To create a wet plate collodion photo, you have to maneuver a plate of glass or metal between multiple chemicals in a matter of minutes, then to the camera, then back to more chemicals.

Hao first sets up his camera, which rests on three tripods instead of just one because of its size, and focuses. Then, in his dark room, he coats a piece of glass with collodion, a clear, viscous mixture made from raw cotton and nitric and sulfuric acids dissolved in ether and alcohol, as well as iodide and bromide. He then dips the glass in silver nitrate, which binds to iodide and bromide and forms a light-sensitive layer. He then inserts it into the camera, where instead of pressing a button to activate the shutter, the lens cap is simply removed and replaced to expose the shot. He returns the glass to the darkroom, where it is placed in two different chemical solutions: first a developer, which turns the light-exposed parts of the glass silver, followed by a fixer, which permanently fixes the image to the glass. . Finally, he washes the glass with water. This whole process should be completed in about 15 minutes before the glass dries.

Unlike a film negative, which can be scanned and printed multiple times and in different sizes, wet plate photos cannot be enlarged or copied. The glass that Hao inserts into the camera becomes the photo itself. “I have to get a bigger camera if I want to get a bigger shot,” he explains. That’s why he shoots in ultra-large format to capture the details of the landscapes he wants to keep in his images.

While he’s currently focused on the Rockies, Hao says he’d like to one day shoot Yosemite National Park, like his idol Ansel Adams, as well as Atlantic Canada and even Europe (although it would be nearly impossible to transport his gear there) . He also wants to exhibit his work in the future, although navigating the art and gallery world hasn’t been easy, especially with the amount of time he spends off-grid, in nature.

The enormous amount of time and effort required to create wet plate images is worth it to Hao, because of the striking, shimmering effect of the silver particles that make up each image, and the amount of creative control he can have.

“I can participate in the whole process, from the production of the negative to the completion of a photograph, which involves a lot of physical and chemical knowledge, as well as a lot of artistic and aesthetic knowledge,” he says. In all this, he draws inspiration from capturing a natural landscape threatened by modern industry. “My wet plate photos will last at least 200 years,” he says. “But will the beauty in the pictures still be there?”

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