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APSU's Bryant studies 19th century photo technique


CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – When Susan Bryant, Austin Peay State University professor of photography, decided to study an antiquated, 19th century photography process, she found herself becoming somewhat of a chemist.

The process, known as the wet-plate collodion technique, was invented in 1851, and it requires precise measurements of grain alcohol, calcium bromide and potassium iodine to produce a negative image on glass. It is glacially slow when compared to digital photography, but the resulting images have a haunting and almost magical beauty to them.

“In the last few years, there have been photographers finding something lacking in digital photography,” Bryant said. “There’s this new interest in the collodion technique. It often results in mistakes, such as streaking of chemicals. The collodion pour can go wrong or the developer can do something wrong, but sometimes the mistakes are kind of nice.”

In 2010, Bryant attended a workshop on the collodion technique in Santa Fe, and in May 2011, she received an APSU summer research grant to study the process at the famed George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y. That’s where she worked one-on-one with Mark and France Scully Osterman, the preeminent experts on the process.

 When she returned to Clarksville, Bryant began setting up still lifes and portraits in her backyard, capturing images that looked as if they were taken a century ago. On a recent summer afternoon, she carried a large 8X10 Kodak field camera onto her back porch. The wood instrument, paid for by another APSU summer research grant, had a 19th century portrait lens attached to the front and looked as if it belonged in a museum. As birds chirped, Bryant slipped under a black blanket and checked the composition through her viewfinder.

It had taken her several minutes to set up the collodion plate in the dark room in her basement, and after exposing the camera lens to the morning’s ambient light, she hurried the plate back into the dark room. On Oct. 3, she’ll present a sample of her work and talk in more detail about the process during a Provost Lecture Series talk at APSU’s Woodward Library.

During that talk, Bryant will explain that her project isn’t simply a nostalgic look at the past. Her goal is to combine the older, slower technique with the modern world.

“This work has lead me to an integration of the collodion process with analogue, darkroom enlarging, as well as digital technology,” she said. “Some of the images in this proposed exhibit would be digital prints made from scanned glass negatives or tintypes.

“Some of the images are gelatin silver prints made in the darkroom, and some are the direct positive ambrotypes and tintypes. I am especially interested in the kind of alchemy that occurs as the 19th-century processes collide with 21st-century technology.”

For more information on the process, contact Bryant at