“My pictures will last at least 200 years,” says photographer Bill Hao, “but will the beauty remain in the pictures?”
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 ancient route to capture the beauty of the Canadian Rockies.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Hao spent 17 years running a travel company, during which time he was forced to photograph the Rocky Mountains. He now devotes all his time to the craft, using a 19th-century photographic process called collodion wet plate.
The process requires shooting and developing outdoors, and to do that, Hao converted a 50-seat tour bus into a mobile darkroom big enough to hold a vintage camera he built from scratch.
In 2015, he started making photos of wet panels after learning about them 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 switched to a Dodge minivan with the back rows of seats removed, and last summer he finally switched to a bus after eight months on the job.
Hao renovated 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 the photos. them. He also needed to set up large developing trays to soak the glass panels he was using with the right chemicals.
To create a collodion wet plate photograph, you must maneuver the glass or metal plate between several chemicals, then into the camera, then back into more chemicals, all within minutes.
First, Hao sets up his camera, which because of its size is on three tripods instead of one, and adjusts the focus. Then, in his darkroom, he coats a piece of glass with collodion, a clear, syrupy 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 into silver nitrate, which combines with the iodide and bromide to form a light-sensitive layer. He then places it in the camera, where the lens cap is simply removed and replaced to expose the photo, rather than pressing a button to activate the shutter. He returns the glass to the dark room, where it is placed in two different chemical solutions: first, a developer that turns the parts of the glass silver when exposed to light, and then a fixative that permanently fixes the image onto the glass. . Finally, the glass is washed with water. This entire 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 a variety of sizes, wet photos cannot be enlarged or copied. Glass Hao placed in the camera becomes the photograph itself. “If I want to get a bigger picture, I have to make a bigger camera,” he explains, so he shoots in super-large format to capture the details of the landscape that he aims to preserve in his photographs.
While his current focus is on the Rockies, Hao says he’d like to someday photograph Yosemite National Park like his idol Ansel Adams, as well as Atlantic Canada and even Europe (though transporting his equipment there would be nearly impossible). He also wants to exhibit his work in the future, although navigating the world of art and galleries has not been easy, especially with the time he spends offline in nature.
The amount of time and effort required to create wet plate photographs is worth it for Hao, because of the stunning effect of the shimmering silver particles that make up each image and the creative control he can have.
“I can be involved in the whole process, from negative production to finishing the picture, which involves a lot of physical and chemical knowledge, as well as a lot of artistic and aesthetic knowledge,” he says. All of this he draws inspiration from capturing the natural landscape threatened by modern industry. “My wet plate photos will last at least 200 years,” he says. “But will the beauty in the photos last?”