Old ways, new times: Sarang Sena creates unique images with a 170-year-old photography technique


Sainik Farms photographer and visual artist Sarang Sena had a date with photography as a child. Her father, a teacher, traveled across the country, capturing his favorite segments of the places he visited, then had the negatives developed. While on vacation, Sena’s father had all the family members sit in one room and projected the photographs he had clicked on. In fact, Sena’s first self-clicked photograph was through his father’s Nikon F401s (film camera). After years of working as a commercial photographer and photojournalist, Sena decided to revisit the places he visited with his father as a child. “I wanted to explore these spaces but, at the same time, I wanted to decide which medium I would like to explore this idea with.” It was then that Sena came across the collodion wet plate process he is currently working with on his latest project, C (See) Y (Why) Studios.

Revisiting a centuries-old process

Wet plate collodion is a 170-year-old photographic technique theorized by French painter Gustave Le Gray and invented by English photographer Fredrick Scott Archer that replaced the daguerreotype, the first publicly available photographic process. Over the decades, despite developments in photography, many practitioners have experimented with this process and refined it further.

Photographs taken using this analog process – it does not involve film or memory card – should be taken in 15 minutes. In hot or humid weather, this process may still need to be sped up. The wet plate technique begins with the cleaning of plates, glass or metal, and the preparation of collodion – a mixture of raw cotton, dissolved in ether, ethnolo and salts. The glass plate is coated with collodion, which is then immersed in a solution of silver nitrate (called a silver bath) for two to five minutes, depending on the intended output. The plate is then placed in a plate holder that snaps into the camera. The plate is then exposed to light for 10 to 30 seconds. Once exposed, a developer – a solution of iron sulfate and acetic acid – is poured over it. Once the developer is poured, the image can be seen in its negative form. It is finally rinsed with water to remove excess developer. “The process is very chemically and temperature dependent, so you have to be very particular with that,” Sena shares, adding that you have to be quick with this process. It is after this that Sena fixes the plate to bring out the image in its positive form. “It can take about an hour to create a photograph and if it doesn’t work I might have to start from scratch,” says Sena, who also built a makeshift darkroom using a suitcase that l further helps to take the process to other places.

live the magic

Sena’s studio at Sainik Farms is a “one-of-a-kind space where people can come and sit and watch the entire wet plate process.” The photographer mentions the artisanal production of the decor during confinement, which gives this space a more intimate and warm atmosphere. “I was trying to build my own camera, so I got into woodworking. I managed to build the camera which is based on the principle of a pinhole camera,” shares Sena, who also takes appointments for the sessions, — the starting price for the sessions is Rs 15,000. Namitha Matthews (38) from Defense Colony got a portrait done with CY Studios about three months ago. “We are all so used to digital cameras and everything is so instantaneous. It’s quite an experience and also quite magical as transferring material onto something that looks like a glass plate,” Matthews shares, adding that the process requires patience given the complexities involved. The turnaround time for photographs is one to two days.

Although Sena has worked with both digital photography and the wet plate process, he believes the medium of photography is secondary when it comes to creating successful photography. “It totally depends on what we’re trying to create. I shoot commercials on film [camera] as well. The end result depends on what we are trying to achieve,” he shares.

While the project is slowly gaining patrons – CY Studios gets about eight to ten sessions a month – Sena believes it has sparked interest among the younger generation. He is now looking forward to sharing unique works of art made using the wet plate process via their website. “These are exclusive plates and there are no double copies for these works. We will put it on our website where individuals can buy it or sell it at auction,” he concludes.

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