The Making Of My Portrait with the photographic alchemist

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Battle Mountain Trading Post now a new home to Revival Photographic

Meeting Kevin Banker

For several weeks I have been observing the movement of large antique signs slowly being shifted away from the iconic Battle Mountain Trading Post in Minturn, Colorado. Word was they were either selling the business or leasing the property.

Shortly after, another set of activities started to surface in the same vicinity. Little that we know a new photo studio was developing.

Then an interesting advertisement appeared in the local paper depicting sepia-like tone photos of individuals and some mention of ‘Tintype’ and 'Ambrotype' photographs.

Being a digital photographer I have no idea what either one meant. Curiosity was killing me. I finally made a stop after noticing a lighted ‘open’ sign.

The first encounter with Kevin Banker was instantly gratifying, for me at least, and later it became evident that the feeling was mutual.

From the guy who did very well in school for two things; Art and Chemistry, Kevin aka 'The photographic Alchemist' found a resurgence niche in photographic art.

This is not just any photo studio but one that will revive the historical techniques in the twenty-first century. Best still, offering his creative services to a deserving town. Minturn will get to keep its good old bastion alive and well.

A view from the future community space and gallery for gathering and exhibits

The Collodion Photographer

The techniques of Kevin’s modern studio date back to the 1860’s. It’s called the Wet Plate Collodion. Metal plates and glass are coated. The solution consists of heavy metal salts, ether, alcohol, and collodion usp, a nitro-cellulose. When combined with silver nitrate and distilled water, it makes up a light sensitive material that can be captured on a flat surface.

Pealing the protective from the tintype plate
Dusting off the exposed metal plate

Chamonix - The Camera

Kevin uses a 2008 Chamonix 8x10 large format camera. Chamonix view cameras are manufactured by a dedicated team of experienced craftsmen in the small city of Haining, in Zheijiang Province, China.

The founder of the company is a Chinese filmmaker, photographer and mountaineer himself. Yu Xiang (於翔) wanted to have a lightweight camera to take on his expeditions. Unable to find anything that matched his expectations, he started to create them in 2004!

Petzval Portrait Lens

With reduction inserts, Kevin can shoot 4x5, 5x7, and 8x10 inch plates with this camera. His vintage portrait lens is a French Darlot Peztval from about 1880. It has 4 glass elements. The aged patina on the brass lens gives the camera combination a unique and old-world classical look.

The Photographic Craft

It is common to hear photographers nowadays staking the claim on how they ‘create photos’ instead of taking them. Deservingly so in many cases. There will be a time when a new terminology gets defined but until then, I found an artist who ‘crafts’ his photos. Literally.

Banker - The Alchemist

What Kevin does as a photographer is true art. From having to cut glass plates, preparation chemistry, manually selecting and inserting a physical f stop into his vintage lens, amongst many other tedious and meticulous steps just for one capture.

Kevin takes between 12 to 15 min to create one image that is after the shoot. The images can never create the same plate twice. Digital guys like me turn the dial to ‘Ch’ (continuous high) on our camera, click and hold the shutter to get up to 9 frames per second! We are spoiled.

“I’ve spent the last two years of my life learning this process. I make all my own chemistry and now am making my own glass plates. I’m very much trying to do this just like the photographers of the past did.”

All About Light

Collodion is measured at an ASA/ISO of 0.5, which is very slow, so it requires a lot of light. The science of exposure and light engaged by Kevin is fastidious.

He uses the right amount of strobes depending on skin tone to expose the plate adequately on camera.

With no shutter on his large format camera, all Kevin has after his careful planning is removing the lens cap and place it back to “take the picture”. Try doing that in 1/15th of a second!

“This process really has brought back the patience of photography for me. Each photograph is one of a kind and is a unique keepsake.”
Kevin manually inserts the f stop into the lens!

Liquid pictures

ODB - Old Dead Bride on the left

Kevin made up his mind to use the ‘old dead bride’ solution to create a tintype metal plate portrait on me. The name came from a formula used by morticians taking photos of the deceased, one last time.

Carefully spreading ODB solution
Then making sure it is evenly distributed
Draining the access

He carefully spread the two-weeks old yellowish orange concoction from a tall pour bottle. It’s Cadmium Bromide content is typically used in the manufacturing of photographic film, engraving and lithography.

Back in the days it’s a ‘poof’ and smoking flash
Not your typical viewfinder

Once the photograph has been exposed to light, it is taken back into the darkroom and developed. The development process takes around 20 seconds and can be shorter or longer depending on exposure and brightness of the subject.

The Dark Room

This dark room used to be a well-lit with a wide open window
The dark room contains red light in order for light sensitive materials to not be exposed to any unwanted light.
Red light magic

Developers are acidic in nature, and can be restrained with distilled water to fine tune them and give longer development times. When the development is finished it is rinsed off completely before going into the fixer. That is where the magic really happens.

Getting ready for the fixer, into the “real deal”
Kevin Banker comfortable in his elements

The ‘fixing of the photographic’ is probably the most astonishing visual experience that goes along with this process.

Depending on what chemistry is used the fix time vary. In most of his work it usually takes just about 5 seconds to transform a negative to a positive.

The awe of transformation is really magical to watch as it changes right in front of your eyes. Even after watching this process for the umpteen time, Kevin never fails to pull out his cellphone to record it. This summarizes his excitement and passion.

Right hand dip and pull, left hand records
Instant transformation

The Fixing process Video

“This process is only effected by UV light, so it sees colors differently that film or digital. It sees Red as Black and Blue as White and all the gradations in between. So somebody with light blue eyes will have almost ice white eyes in a collodion image. It can be truly stunning.“
Washing off the excessive fixer
Soaking the metal plate to remove the residuals
Over to the rack for drying
Scanning the tintype plate
From physical to digital

After the plate is fixed and washed, its time to dry and varnish. Kevin uses the original varnish recipe found from the 1860’s. This is a mixture of Gum Sandarac, a sticky pine tree sap, alcohol, and lavender oil.

Plates protected with this varnish have been known to last since the 1860’s and still are around today, so there’s really no known longevity for these plates. Properly taken care of, they can probably last for centuries.

Heating varnish to seal the plate - I am now immortalized for centuries to come, on a Tintype plate.
Making it to the hall of rustic fame

Personally I am very please how this portrait turned out. More so, I am extremely appreciative to learn of the wet collodion process, Kevin’s tenacity, astuteness and the chemistry of this work is very admirable. His willingness to educate me is humbling. I am grateful to have a new photographic friend just a stone throw from my office.

Whether you find chemistry in his art or leave his studio learning about art in the chemistry of his work, the visit to Revival Photographic studio at the south end of Minturn will never disappoint you.

2022 Latest update: Kevin had to move to Boulder, CO and close his Studio for now.

Esse est percipi est Lomographi. Use your camera whenever you’re alive!
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