MMRF is perhaps as known for its talented blues musicians as it is for its legendary photographs capturing the artists. The walls of the MMRF office in Hillsborough are lined with black and white snapshots from over the years—Boo Hanks holding his guitar, Precious Bryant smiling sweetly for the camera and so on. To continue this tradition, MMRF founder Tim and artist services coordinator Aaron have started to explore a centuries old form of photography known as wet plate photography.
An early photographic process invented by Frederick Scott Archer in the late 1840s, wet plate photography is a time-consuming activity that pays off according to Tim and Aaron. It involves taking a glass or tin plate, pouring a solution called salted collodion on the plate, dipping it in an 8% silver solution and inserting it in a view camera. After exposing the plate and capturing the desired image, you must then develop, fix wash and varnish the plate before you can make a print from the negative in the darkroom. Or, in the case of a tintype, you have a one of a kind object (the modern equivalent would be a Polaroid).
“We’re photography hobbyists,” Tim cites as their reason to experiment with wet-plate photography. He and Aaron laud the process for its ability to produce detailed images. They reference photographers like Matthew Brady, Edward Curtis and Sally Mann who are known for using the process at different points in history. However, they also cite the newest Carolina Chocolate Drops album cover (Leaving Eden), which was shot by a friend, as an inspiration.
Getting a clear picture is the biggest challenge of wet plate photography, says the pair. They also say that it took about a year, after searching on-and-off, to gather all of the chemicals and materials to even begin shooting wet plate. So far, Tim and Aaron have done three sessions in their free time, and each session can take four to five hours.
Photography at MMRF provides practical reasons beyond giving Tim and Aaron a fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon. “Now in the digital age,” Tim explains, “we can get a great image of an artist and send it to a booking agent.” He says that agents have booked MMRF artists based on seeing photos of the musicians, sometimes before even listening to their music.
Both Tim and Aaron tend to prefer film to digital photography, so it’s understandable why wet plate photography appeals to them. Aaron likes that with film you can, “see the image in your mind, create it in your hands and see the result.”