It's sweltering hot at Lower Otay Reservoir in Chula Vista. Photographer Anton Orlov is shirtless and sweating inside his bright orange, full-sized school bus, which he's transformed into a traveling darkroom named “The Photo Palace Bus.” The Russia-born photographer and two of his shutterbug friends are experimenting, trying to capture an ambrotype of the lake using a 16-by-20-inch, 19th-century wooden camera and a variant of the wet-plate process, a highly involved photographic process invented in the late 1840s.
Orlov is inside the stuffy darkroom coating a glass plate with collodion and silver nitrate, preparing it for exposure. Once it's ready, he bursts from the darkroom and jogs briskly down a gravel path toward the camera, which is set up on the shore of the lake pointing toward the water and a large, beautiful, fluffy cloud rolling slowly over the surrounding mountains. He focuses the lens, puts the plate in the back of the camera, removes the slide protecting it from the light, then removes the lens cap for a three-second-long exposure. He puts the slide back in, removes the plate and runs—faster this time—back to the bus so he can develop the image before the plate dries and the image is lost.
“I'm coming out,” say Orlov from the confines of his portable darkroom where he's following the remaining steps in the tricky wet-plate process.
“Oh, wow, this is all sorts of messed up,” he says, squinting at the image that's appearing on the glass plate and launching into a stream-of-consciousness analysis. “What the heck is that? It's a multitude of crapitude. Not enough exposure? Really? Yup, not enough exposure. Fogging, yeah, serious fogging. But look at that cloud, though. Just look at that. Ok, so, overall, that was a complete waste of a lot of chemicals.”
Wet-plate photography is difficult. Orlov has done it enough, though, that most of the time his photographs turn out beautifully. This shoot was a challenge, he later explains, because it was the first time he tried using the 16-by-20-inch camera to make ambrotypes and the excessive heat was messing with his chemicals. After six hours of trying, he eventually packed up the bus and headed home, ready to call the experiment a failure—for now anyway. Soon Orlov says he'll head into his dark room on Adams Avenue—the last rentable darkroom in San Diego—and figure out how to get it right before he goes back out into the field with the large vintage camera again.
Orlov is dedicated to keeping wet-plate photography alive, despite its challenges and limitations.
“One of the reasons I like doing wet plate—aside from longevity, resolution and look of it—is that each image is completely unique,” he says. “I can make 10 plates of a table-top setup with all the same lighting and camera settings and every one will be slightly different because the emulsion and developer are poured by hand. So, I guess I like to have a little bit of me in each plate.”
Anton Orlov's “True Face” tintype
Always a fan of alternative processes when it came to his professional photography, Orlov took a wet-plate photography workshop a few years back and was instantly hooked. Since then, he's been one of its biggest advocates and rising stars. He took a cross-country trip aboard The Photo Palace Bus in 2013 and produced about 500 plates, many of which he shared on his blog, thephotopalace.blogspot.com, garnering fans along the way. That same year, he was featured in the The San Diego Union-Tribune , The Los Angeles Times and dozens of other media outlets after he discovered eight developed negatives of never-before-seen images from World War I taken in France. He found the extremely rare negatives in the back of a vintage camera he bought at a Los Angeles thrift store. He scanned the images, posted them to his blog and the media blitz began. Orlov says he later went back to the same thrift store, bought another camera and found yet another never-before-seen image. He's doing some research on it before he publishes that photo to his blog. Once he does, he'll undoubtedly grab more attention.
Orlov is flirting with fame in other ways, too, thanks to his most recent blog post about the world's first-ever transparent camera he invented and built. Dubbed CLERA—short for Clear Camera—the invention looks like a vintage wooden daguerreotype camera, but it's made of translucent red polycarbonate. “
The vast majority of old photographic processes are sensitive to the UV spectrum of light and the blue wavelength, so that's why we have red light in the the darkroom, for instance,” Orlov explains. “And in my dark box, which I use to develop wet plates on location, it has these red windows…. I noticed that sometimes the light would go through the red windows and the sun would be shining right on my plate and it would still come out perfect.”
He thought it would be neat to make a camera out of that same red see-through material so people could watch as the picture was being exposed. He recently unveiled CLERA to a public audience at an event at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park where he took people's portraits using his self-made camera.
Portraits are Orlov's bread and butter. In a time when everyone with a cell phone can call themselves a photographer, he sets himself apart by using the antique processes and making a photo session more like an educational experience.
“So, every portrait session is a miniature performance piece and there's also a miniature history lesson and chemistry lesson,” he says. “I explain the whole process and I show everything from pouring to developing. Then the most magical moment is when it dips in the fixer and reverses from a negative into a positive right in font of you—that always gets a wow. And I always get a little wow inside myself, too, because even though I've done probably over 1,000 plates by now it still gets me every time.”
When Orlov's not shooting portraits, he's often working on his fine-art photography and pointing his lens toward urban decay and streetscapes. His shots have an added layer of beautiful ominousness thanks to the darker, ghostlier tones created through the wet-plate process.
“I don't really shy away from any subject, actually,” he says. “If it makes a good composition and if the light reflects from it right, I'm interested. I had a picture of horse shit published once. The light was right. The texture was right. I did a four-by-five-inch exposure of it. It's full of silvery tones. It's gorgeous.”