Making the invisible visible

Since I can remember I have been interested in what’s not really there. Clouds moving in the sky, smears of blood, pollen, bug parts on a slide, colonies that grow in a Petri dish, genetic code. These things are there but not to the naked eye, or in the case of clouds, they are ephemeral.

I had a kids microscope when I was young. I also got to use a real microscope when I was older, it was a big, and heavy, not like the 10 inch tall microscope I had been using. It transformed my appreciation for things that might be unseen.

When I taught myself how to coat dry plates back in the 1980s, I got good at it, but quickly got bored that I was able to make glass images. I enlarged negatives on small and very large plates. I would make a glass internegative, and enlarge the 4×4 or bigger plates, and I eventually got interested in what was under the image.

In order to coat dry plates sometimes you need to put something on the glass. The plate is slippery and doesn’t really have anything for the emulsion to anchor itself to. You have to put gelatin or urethane or something on the plate that sticks to it, and after that intermediary step you hopefully can apply the emulsion. ( if you have a cold stone you can probably skip the binding step, the coldness makes the gelatin in the emulsion grab onto the glass so it doesn’t slide off the plate when you fix it )

People who are very good at making dry plates (and wet plates!) are able to get their binder on smooth without any imperfections ( the collodion is the subbing agent for wet plates ). Im guessing people who are reading this post have seen wet plates with “sloppy collodion” the anti-digital trademark of a lot of photographers, which can sometimes be a distraction. Folks who make dry plates sometimes get the same imperfections when the emulsion is too thick and sets up on the plate, or their sub layer isn’t smooth.

When I was enlarging the plates, I saw a world that is typically unseen. I began to make glass slides like I did when I was younger, but instead of looking at them under a microscope I’d turn them into photographs.

The unseen world of the glass plate, film, discarded things, ephemeral photographs, all became the everything for me. It took me 2 years to realize what had happened when I studied and earned a MFA. I was looking too deep for meaning when the meaning was already there.

Making the invisible, visible.

Cyanotype, traditional formula
The cove

I used to add color to my cyanotypes with watercolor paints and pigmented wax, but I’ve realized the colors are already there but almost invisible to the naked eye.

Author: jnanian

I am a Freelance Photographer in Rhode Island. I make photographs using a variety of methods with and without a camera. I make photo emulsions from scratch, I coat my own photo paper and make cyanotypes too. I am a huge fan of Caffenol, and instead of instant coffee, I roast my own beans and sell them. I also sell silver recovery products.