Thursday, 13 May 2010

What I don't know about wet collodion and Victorian post-mortem photography

I'm just working on a short story about an itinerant photographer who travels with his tripod and cumbersome portable dark room from village to village producing snapshots of the locals. I won't spoil the plot in case it is published one day, but basically, the sittings in one village lead to a crime, after which the young ambrotypist is called on to take an early post mortem photograph for the local constabulary.

I feel most alive when I am writing and never cease to marvel how much we can learn from researching our stories. In the course of researching this story, for instance, I've been discovering the developments that took place in the 1850s, when the early Daguerrotype process was improved on by the wet collodion process, particularly popular for its quick, cheap "instant" results. This meant that the image could more easily be replicated from a single negative. The glass plates for wet (and later, dry) collodion photos were also more readily available than the older silver-plated copper.

But its usually true of the research we accumulate for storywriting that it's better left in the background, to inform rather than hijack the tale. You DON'T want to know all about coating glass plates with silver nitrate and the dangers of working in a confined space with acid, bromide, iodide salts, alcohol, ether and goodness knows what else! Still less will the reader want to know about the gruesome fashion for "post mortem" photographs I've just discovered while striving for background knowledge. I now know that Victorian mourners often had their lately deceased loved ones photographed for posterity, even having "eyes" painted on the closed lids for a more "lifelike" effect! Some of the many existing examples of these memento mori are the stuff of nightmare and have no place in my own tale. Facts are facts, and anyone can pursue them. What the readers long for is a tale to inspire them, transport them. They want to know "Who did it?", or "Do they get together in the end?" or to encounter a host of other life-enhancing, challenging moments that only fiction can nudge their way.

What a joy and a journey! The challenge I've set myself in this story is to try to let the reader see through the eyes of the camera what is really going on under the surface. Of course, being me, on the way I inevitably become voracious gobbler of weird and wonderful facts that get stored away in my brain and imagination. Sometimes these things lead to other stories I never would have planned, often more intriguing than the original idea! Stories, like ourselves as writers and readers, are always open to evolve and change as we interact with God's glorious, endlessly gracious creative power. Stories give us space too to fix a snapshot of some truth within the rainbow of possibilities, developed like the photographer's negatives exposed to the sunlight of the human heart.

From the Open University's Learning Space "Arts and History" Unit on "The rise of the itinerant photographer": Image 78: Photographer/Painter: John Thomson. Subject: The Itinerant Photographer on Clapham Common’, from John Thomson & Adolphe Smith, Street Life in London, 1877/78.

(One of many excellent sites used during my research for the story mentioned in this post)

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