June 11, 2019

An Inside Look at Collodion Photography

Learn about 19th century photography with OMCA's own Brittany Bradley

by OMCA Staff

Brittany Bradley, OMCA’s Intellectual Property and Imaging Coordinator, not only handles photographing, digitizing, and reproducing collection materials at the Museum--she’s also a skilled wet-plate collodion photographer. Watch as Brittany walks us through the process of creating a collodion photo and read on to discover how her artistic passion combines with work in OMCA’s newest exhibition, Pushing West: The Photography of Andrew J. Russell.

Q: How did you get involved in collodion photography?

A: I grew up seeing historical photographs of Indigenous communities and communities of color that I did not feel accurately represented history and the things that actually happened. From a very young age, I was interested in analog practices for that reason.

In high school, my boyfriend at the time committed suicide, and on the 10-year anniversary of his death, I wanted to do a photo project about our mutual friends. I took this as an opportunity to learn more about a historical process. I reached out to the mother of historical photography preservation, France Scully Osterman. She and her husband Mark Osterman live in Rochester, New York and they have a dark room in the basement where they teach photography. I wrote France an email begging her to teach me, and she said, “buy a ticket and come out.” So that’s how I learned.


Q: What is the hardest part of the process?

A: The hardest part is dealing with changing conditions. All of the elements of collodion are really sensitive. If it becomes overcast, it changes the exposure length. If the light changes in the middle of the exposure, it can ruin your image. Sand, wind, and temperature changes impact how the chemicals react. Collodion boils at about 90 degrees, so any slight change in temperature can make it too runny. Those are really difficult things to think about when you’re shooting.


Q: What are you most excited about in Pushing West?

A: I think I’m most excited to see how adding the Indigenous narrative to a subject that’s been devoid of that input and experience changes the narrative around the images. I think these images have long been romanticized as “discovering the great unknown” and changing that narrative with Indigenous community input can really impact the way we look at historical images. It’s a really important and beautiful conversation.


Q: What are you hoping visitors experience in the exhibition?

A: Today, the way we look at photography as a culture has changed. We very rarely deal with photographs as physical objects and photography has become so easy and convenient. Being able to look at the amount of effort that went into one of these photographs and then to see that as an entire collection is unbelievable. When you understand the process and how much work goes into making just one image, it makes the images that much more profound.

Pushing West: The Photography of Andrew J. Russell is on view through September 1, 2019.