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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Wet-plate collodion on a motorcycle

Inspired by William Henry Jackson's autobiography and his exploration of  Colorado, I decided to follow his lead and create wet-plate collodion photographs while traveling on a motorcycle - the modern-day equivalent to Jackson's mule.

William Henry Jackson's assistant leading a mule loaded with gear.
I had been enthralled with Jackson's accounts of his exploration of the American West and was curious to see if it was still possible today to experience a similar sense of adventure and a significant personal connection to the Land. In addition, I had always dreamt of riding a motorcycle, and being 36, I thought it was high time to give it a try.

Denis and KLR 650
The biggest challenge in this enterprise is, of course, to fit all my gear and supplies on the bike. I had to sell and buy a few things in order to make this happen…

First and foremost, I had to find a motorcycle. 

I eventually bought a 2002 KLR 650. It is a dual-sport (for both highway and trails), it was cheap, strongly built, reliable, fairly easy to maintain and fix and could carry quite a bit.

The bike was in rough shape when I bought it; it required a certain amount of TLC before being rideable for long stretches of time. This is an image of my first outing.

After having ridden the klr for a couple years now, I'd say that it is the right bike for what I do: it gets me from the house to the trails in relative comfort and is also proficient off-road. The biggest drawback is its weight: loaded with all my gear it is really difficult (almost impossible) to bring back up by myself after a fall. I can do it once on a trip, but not twice…

Then I needed to choose a set-up to carry my gear. 

In order to protect my camera (a paramount issue), hard-side panniers were the only choice. There are many options for panniers, but being on a budget I quickly zeroed in on recycled ammo cans and Dirtracks mounting racks.  I ordered the widest possible ammo cans - which were meant to house 20 mm ammunitions- they are 18.5' long x 8.25" wide x 14.5" tall.

After some modifications, mine look like this:
In addition to doing the necessary modification (removing the reinforcement metal bar on the side towards the bike) to  mount the ammo can on the rack, I added a couple U bolts on the top. They serve as anchors while attaching gear (tripod, tent, sleeping bag, ext) on the pannier. I placed another U bolt in the middle of the handle ; it allows me to use a lock and keep my material secure. 
Once again, the only drawback to using ammo cans is their weight. However they are virtually indestructible: I have fallen quite a few times and they have done a great job protecting both their content and my bike.  I actually performed the ultimate test on their strength when I crashed the left one against a tree stump. It got a small dent but my camera (which was inside) came out without a scratch. The mount rack took the blunt of the force and broke in two places though…

I also added a top box on the back rack, which is were I keep my lenses, digital camera and other sensitive and expensive gear. Most people are familiar with Pelican cases - which are wonderful but  a little pricy. I opted for a less-known brand: Seahorse cases. I bought the Seahorse SE 630; it had the perfect dimensions to fit on the bike and carry enough stuff.

Klr 650 with side pannier and top box.

Ammo cans are so sturdy that I was also able to install Rotopax mounts directly on them in order to carry two 1-gallon Rotopax water containers.

You can see the mount and how the ammo can has been modified so the lid now pivots and only opens on one side.
This gives me enough water to process a day worth of plates.

Rotopax water container and mount.

Enough with the motorcycle, let's talk about photographic gear.

First, I had to find the right camera.

This meant that I had to sell my trusted 8x10 Calumet C1.

I loved that camera! It was ugly, heavy but unbreakable and had a tremendous bellow draw (which allowed me to do all my close up still life from the compost). But, even folded down, it was just too big to fit in any side pannier.
I sold it and invested into a 8x10 Deardorff field camera. I have absolutely no regrets, it is a beautiful object , is fairly light and fold down to an incredibly manageable size.

The Deardorff in action at Wheeler
Folded, the Deardorff measures 12"x12"x4.5"

A crucial element of your arsenal is the silver nitrate bath. 

I purchase a travel tank from Lundphotographics and couldn't be happier with it. During my trip to the San Luis Valley, I kept my silver nitrate in the travel tank for an entire week of bumping up and down on backcountry trail. I virtually didn't loose anything. The tank is tight and robust.

You will of course need a dark box to process your plates. 

At this point, it seems to me there are only two options on a motorcycle: an ice fishing tent or a home-made foldable dark box.
For a while I carried an Eskimo Quickfish 2 and it worked very well for 1-day outings, but is too cumbersome if you're planning a multi-day trip and you have to carry your camping gear.

First trip with the QuickFish.
N.B. The ice fishing tent is still, in my mind, the best option to shoot in the field, if you have enough room in/on your vehicle. It only requires minimum modifications to be useable as a darkroom (replace some windows with rubylith, plug any pinhole in the fabric and by the zippers with liquid electrical tape).

Eventually, I realized that I needed something that could be folded and tucked away. I set out to design a fabric foldable dark box with an internal PVC structure. Once put together it looks like this:

The shell of the box is made up of two layers; the outer layer is blackout curtain fabric, the inner is black bottomweight fabric. The dark cloth is of the same material; it attaches to the box with velcro.
The dark box is big enough to accommodate my 8x10 dip tank and a couple 8x10 trays.

The deconstructed box looks like this:

When folded, everything fits in a 30-liter dry bag that I can attached on the top of one side pannier.

In addition to the normal equipment for wet-plate collodion, I had to fabricate a water-tight box that would allow me to carry un-washed plates until I had access to running water. I made it out of clear plexiglass, the inside dimensions are barely greater that the plates' size (7.5" x 9.25"). It has enough slots to hold 10 different plates.

At first I would fill the tank with water and set unwashed plates in. However handiwork wasn't perfect and the tank leaked at the junction of the box and the lid. Some water would end up at the bottom of my side pannier. Eventually I elected to flow all my plates with a mixture of glycerin and distilled water (1+1) before putting them in my tank for travel. This works perfectly for me. I can conserve my unwashed plates for several days and wash them at my leisure when convenient.

Plexiglass tank holding one of the plates from wheeler.

So how does all of this look on the bike?

Obviously the first things to pack are the side panniers.

In the left side pannier, I can fit the camera (note that is protected by a cardboard enclosure), a modified 8x10 film holder, three trays, the camera dark cloth (on the right of the camera), and the dark box shroud (top right corner). Everything is zoo tightly packed that there can only be very minimal movements while riding.

In the right pannier, I put the travel tank (barely visible at the bottom), all my chemistry (in the soft-side red cooler), the plexiglass tank (on the right) and paper towels.

In the top box, I carry a soft bag that contains one lens, release cable, headlamp, timer, gloves and trash bags. I have additional room for my digital SLR.

This is a picture of the motorcycle loaded for a 7-day adventure in the San Luis Valley (you can read more about the trip on the blog:

You can see a water container in front of the pannier (in white). On top is my foldable dark box in its red dry bag. The left pannier also carries a 1-gallon water bottle; on top I attached my tripod and my sleeping bag.
I have also added tank saddle bags where I keep some food and other necessary items.

Loaded like this, the Klr is possibly at capacity. If not, it is definitely at my capacity to bring it back up as mentioned earlier.

The trip in the San Luis Valley was a blast; I can't wait to do something like this again.

I hope that this was helpful and that I will get to see some of you on the trails this coming summer!


Monday, November 17, 2014

Holiday Sale 2014

In celebration of this year's holidays, I'm offering a limited number of prints of my tintype landscapes at a special price. There are only 1 or 2 prints per image available, so if you're interested, don't wait too long…/HolidaySale2014.html

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Tintyping in Aspen, CO.

I haven't posted in quite a while... My absence here hasn't been due to a lack of photographic activity. On the contrary I have been busy shooting landscape tintype for an upcoming exhibition at the Colorado Photographic Arts Center in Denver. You can find details by clicking the following link:
Developing World - Opening July 10th

I hope that you can make it to the show, but in the meantime here is one of the latest tintype that I have produced:
Maroon Bells, Aspen, CO.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Dry Collodion Photography

As you might know, over the past few weeks, I have been experimenting with the dry collodion process to capture the timeless beauty of Colorado's landscape and vistas. It seems to be the perfect medium to continue the adventure started last summer when I jumped on my motorcycle packed with photo gear and circumnavigated the San Luis Valley with my friend Joe, stopping to take tintypes all the way. I am psyched about all of the possibilities and now looking for ways to turn those possibilities into reality.

I have decided to try something new (for me) and offer one of my photographs as an open edition, for a very affordable price. Your support will help me greatly in continuing my experimentation with dry collodion photography!

The photo is an archival inkjet print made from a dry collodion negative and represents one of the many breath-taking rock formations at the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, CO. The print is 5"x7", the image size is 4 1/2"x 5 5/8". I am offering it for $25 + shipping. Please consider taking advantage of this opportunity and visit the following page:

Share with your friends!

Thank you!


Saturday, August 3, 2013

Exploring the San Luis Valley - Wheeler Geological Area

I woke up early on Saturday morning, eager to see the wild rock formations at Wheeler and nervous to ride the 14-mile trail. We always thought that Wheeler would be the climax of our trip, both in terms of riding and it terms of photographic and musical opportunities. We were not to be disappointed. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the only thing we knew about the approach to Wheeler was that it was bound to be tough, but how tough we couldn't really judge from what we had read. We would have to see for ourselves...

While we were getting ready for the day a young couple came up the dirt road in a pick-up truck trailing an ATV; they were obviously going to Wheeler. Joe tried to get some feedback on the trail, but the guy just wouldn't give us any useful practical information. However He did offer us "road sodas" (new expression for me that stands for "beers"), but since we were still cooking breakfast we declined his generous offer. They wished us good luck and went on their way. Soon followed by yours truly.

It took us 1h45 min to reach the parking area before Wheeler. Pretty good time if I can say so myself. I am not sure if I can produce an adequate description of the trail... I remember it as a succession of heart-pounding experiences, including flying over rock fields, going down steep curvy rocky slopes before crossing a creek and going up an even steeper rocky slope, wondering what was on the other side of tight traitorous curves and praying that it wasn't another mud puddle... For mud had become my nemesis! 
On the way up to Wheeler I fell three times; each fall turning into a mud bath for the bike and I. The first time was due to overconfidence. We had ridden the first three miles with no incidents, the trail had been pretty decent: a few rocks, a few bumps but nothing too precarious. After going through a pine forest, the landscape opened up onto a pasture and the trail leveled off. Unfortunately there was a puddle in the middle of it. I tried to skirt it - too late - and my front tire slid under me. Poof, I was in the mud for the first time. No bruises or any other booboos for me, but the big issue with falling is getting back up. With all the gear my motorcycle must weigh close to 900 lbs - 900 lbs that my meager 150 pounds have to lift up. Not an easy task when your standing in mud and your boots have no traction. However, I wanted to get back up and moving before the ATV I had just passed caught up with me. I didn't want to look like a complete fool, you see... I managed to lift the bike right before the nice folks in the ATV stopped and asked me if I was ok. I reassured them and told them to go ahead. 

Joe and I were to pass the same people again before my next fall, at which time they nicely stopped and asked me if I was ok  or if I needed a ride. Jerks! (Well they were joking, they had realized early on that I was obviously a seasoned adventure rider.) I reassured them and told them to go ahead. At that point I took a well-deserved break. We never caught up with the ATV again. 

As for my third fall, the only thing I know is that it was due to mud. Mud, mud, mud! How I loathe you. Thankfully after my first fall, Joe would stop and wait for me whenever we encountered a tough-er section. He was there to help me get my bike back up everytime. Thanks mate! 

Anyhow we made it to the parking/camping area early afternoon, almost unscathed in my case, immaculate in Joe's case. We set up our tents and quickly hiked up to Wheeler to explore the area. 

What an amazing place. Imagine 640 acres of chaotic wonders - rock formations the like you only find in the most renowned national parks (such as Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, etc), but protected from the masses by 14 miles of unkempt trail. 

Desolate and beautiful. 

Alien and alluring. 

Breath taking and introspection inducing. 

We stayed 21/2 days and 2 nights at Wheeler. The first afternoon was spent taking in the scenery and appreciating our luck to be in such a gorgeous and peaceful place. We went back up to one of the observation points in the evening to see the light fade on the hoodoos and bring part of my photo gear for next day's photo session.

I have to mention here that there was a mile between our campsite and the spot I choose for photography and that we had to carry many pounds of equipment from point a to point B. We must have made the trek half-a-dozen time during our stay. Once again, I couldn't have done any pictures without Joe's help. 

I used a foldable fabric darkbox with an internal pvc pipe structure. It is big enough to process 8x10 plates.
Front view.
I also made a plexiglass tank to hold up to 8 plates in water before final wash. It can be used to store plates after coated with a glycerin/water mix.
Sunday morning we got up early and headed to the panorama point. I spent the next 2 1/2 hours making tintypes.

For the first 1 1/2 hours I was utterly alone in the landscape (Joe having gone back down to our campsite to prepare his recording gear). Later I could hear Joe hiking, climbing, clapping his hands, and no one else. This was incredible!

When I went back down though, it was a zoo. A mob of middle-aged couples, most overweight, had taken over the place both physically with their 8 ATV and perceptually with their loud voices.  It was Sunday after all and a beautiful day to boot, I shouldn't have been surprised to see other people. I couldn't wait for them to be gone and be alone once more for a quiet and relaxing evening in the heart of the geological marvel. 

Last image of the day. Taken at 6 pm under an overcast sky.
I had time for one more image before the evening was over and we had to head down to our campsite for the last time...

On Monday morning, we tried to beat the weather and pack up before the rain. It didn't quite happen... It started to sprinkle before we left; nothing too bad though. We mounted our bikes and headed down the trail. Two minutes later, a fast moving tree stump stopped me in my track. I had forgotten how wide my bike's ass was with the two panniers and had gone too far to the left of the trail. The front of the bike went through ok, the middle of the bike (with me on it) went through ok, the left pannier on the back crashed against the infamous tree trunk. This unfortunate encounter resulted in a fatally broken panniers' rack. I was crushed; I couldn't believe how stupid this was. The panniers contained all my photographic equipment, I couldn't leave anything behind. We had to get down to the pavement. Joe and I spent 2 hours fixing the damages with duct tape and paracord. Under Joe's guidance we produced the following set-up:

Quite fancy, if I can say so myself.

I had most of the trail left to ride and couldn't afford to fall even once. The panniers and rack wouldn't survive another fall; my camera and gear HAD to make it to the next town, at least. I can tell you that the next 13 miles were intensely nerve-racking. But with concentration and a couple moments of luck (I can still remember going through a major mud puddle and sliding left and right before barely stabilizing the bike) I made it down to Hanson Mills with no problems. Then onto South Fork.
The accident meant no more off-road riding for me, so Joe and I decided to head home and were back in our respective dwelling by 1:30 am that night. This was to be the end of this adventure...