The true magic of image making

Sheffied Photographer , Jonathan Steadman
Sheffied Photographer , Jonathan Steadman
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Revivalist, alchemist and pioneer - Jonathan Stead is a Sheffield-based photographer who has ditched the digital camera for a technique more than 150 years-old, writes Star reporter Rachael Clegg

JONathan Stead is not a man who goes for the easy option.

The Wicker-based photographer could use cutting-edge digital photography equipment designed to make life easier.

But instead, he has resorted to a method that dates back to 1870 - and is one of only a handful of people in the world actually doing it.

He says: “It’s called dry plate photography. It’s a really creative way of taking photographs because there’s interaction between the photographer and the image.”

However, because the process is so obsolete, no-one is producing the prepared plates any more.

Jonathan says: “I decided to resurrect the process and coat my own glass plates, using various photographic chemicals and silver gelatin. I love the process of creating photography.”

Glass plates were used in great numbers in the 20th century and companies such as Ilford - which today makes film - manufactured the prepared plates. Eventually film superceded glass plates and became the medium of photography throughout most of the 20th century.

And the way in which a plate is coated influences its appearance. Although plates can be perfectly coated Jonathan prefers experimenting with deliberate blemishes.

“It’s alchemy really - I’m always experimenting with different chemicals and the different effects they create,” says Jonathan.

The process is the exact opposite of digital photography.

“Each picture is unique. You can’t fire off hundreds of shots like you can with digital photography,” he says.

Jonathan’s projects range from portraits to highly-personal work, such as pictures that document the last few weeks of his grandmother’s life, as she was dying from dementia.

“A lot of my personal work is about the subject and how the process relates to it,” he says. “When my nan was suffering from dementia, it was horrible, but there is a beauty to the pictures.

“When I was doing those pictures I deliberately didn’t look after the dry plate and that went hand in hand with the subject because something was wrong with my Nan and likewise the plate was imperfect.”

And while there are infinite digital photography workshops, classes, handbooks, there are no experts, current handbooks or classes for dry plate photography.

His colleagues are bound in 19th-century text books.

Jonathan says: “I have to consult really old books about photography because so far I haven’t come across anyone between here and America doing this kind of stuff.”

But this does not bother him.

“I love it,” he says. “I’m coming across the problems and challenges that faced the pioneers of photography all those years ago.”

Jonathan thrives off the process. His studio is clouded with a stench of ammonia and he tinkers around in darkness with nothing but a red light on a headband, swishing chemicals around in various trays in a large bath and selecting glass slides from a specially-built case, scanning plates as the ghostly images emerge. He gives a demonstration.

“Sit there,” he says, “next to the light box. The exposure’s 15 seconds but you can blink.”

The result is an eerie, extremely-detailed portrait that highlights every freckle, wrinkle and flaw. It is distinct from the standard digital photos to which we have become to accustomed.

Jonathan says: “I think digital photography’s a bit sterile, it’s almost impossible to give something an individual look.

“There’s a fine art aspect to this, which I like. Photography is not considered as art people think it’s easily achieved but this is different. The one-off aspect of it makes it special. What value can you place on something that can be reproduced 1,000,000 times.”

Jonathan leads workshops in dry plate photography and his business is growing, with more and more commissions and an increasing demand for workshops.

“The tough thing is that there is no business model for what I’m doing,” he says. “I’m just trying to find my feet the best I can.”

Plate pictures

The dry plate process dates back to the 1870s and was a technological attempt to make photography quicker and more sensitive to light.

Early processes were relatively unsensitive to light, requiring long exposure.

Some exposures for portraits were many minutes long, often requiring a iron neck brace to secure a persons head - hence the lack of smiles on many early portraits.

The dry plate technique was in many ways the precursor to film photography, and uses the same technology - silver gelatin as a base, the difference being that glass was used instead of a plastic film.

Jonathan Stead is the only person in the country leading dry plate workshops.

Plate photography was also the process used to take the first surveys of the stars.