How to look epic: Have your photo taken with old-school method
Published 11:10 am, Wednesday, November 29, 2017
Here at the end of the second decade of the 21st century, taking a photo is as easy as grunting - tapping on your smartphone screen and watching the image stolen from time made ready for your social media feeds.
There is no skill, no sweat equity related to something that just decades ago was a process in the most italicized form, involving specialized materials, chemicals and, most of all, patience.
These days, patience isn't part of the photography vernacular as photo galleries are filled with spontaneous snaps of everything from a bowl of saturated cereal to people smiling at themselves.
Rewind a century and you don't see many of your ancestors smiling in photos, mostly because it was a tedious ordeal, taking minutes at a time to capture that frozen image.
Cody Mobley set the clock back to the 1850s, photographically speaking. I meet the 34-year-old and his makeshift chemistry lab on a warm Saturday afternoon outside the front porch of Sam Houston's house, where he's holding a demonstration.
The Menard County resident and Texas Historical Commission staffer is one of only a handful of Texans currently practicing the wet plate photographic method - using nitrous cellulose dissolved in ether, alcohol and seasoned with photo-sensitive salts poured onto glass. That glass is then put in silver nitrate.
To take the image you just expose the plate to light, and you expose it to light by removing the lens cap in the camera.
Visit the past
Follow Cody Mobley's work via his Instagram feed @mobleyambrotypes
When: 6 p.m. Saturday Where: Moving Sidewalks, 306 Main
"Shot on glass, it was the first commercially-viable form of photography," Mobley says. "It's a true light picture, with the light refracting through the lens and baking the silver onto the glass plate."
Still, Mobley insists, "I'm not a photographer, I'm a historian. I appreciate the experimental archaeology aspect of this, using the original methods to replicate an original artifact."
He's dressed in period-appropriate garb, complete with chemical stains and a hat fit for a different century. The sight is worth asking if he uses a digital camera when dressed in contemporary garb - he doesn't, although Mobley uses his smartphone to document his work.
And, now he's going to document my look by taking my ambrotype.
I sit for Mobley next to Sam Houston's chimney in a light brown pearl snap shirt, my dog staring up at me, not knowing that we're partaking in an ancient form of photography. I keep a stoic smile for 15 seconds while Mobley's rig steals my soul.
"Ambrotypes are archival. As long as you don't step on them, they should last forever," Mobley says. "It can be exposed to sunlight with no problem."
In other words, my image will be captured on glass, forever.
Mobley says "a few hipsters in Austin" are attempting other vintage forms of photography to make their barista friends look like grizzled prospectors, but Mobley only counts three or four others as his contemporaries.
It was just two years ago that he built his first camera and began teaching himself the process. Mobley is for hire, driving around Texas (and as far north as Nebraska) with his wet collodion process to transport subjects back roughly 160 years. Some, like the Texas Association of Buckskinners, don their best furs and skins for Mobley to capture.
His love affair with wet plate photography has been aided by eBay, where vintage materials can still be had, rescued from dusty attics and junk shops. He makes his own chemicals as needed, some of which on a warm Texas day can be quite headache-inducing without proper ventilation. He says he wasted sixteen plates before finally getting a picture to stick.
"Initially my wife wasn't too happy about me taking on another project," he says. "She has since come around and has even attended one of the photography workshops I've hosted and has her own camera."
Mobley's pet process was invented by Englishman Frederick Scott Archer around 1851. As Mobley states, if the wet collodion process hadn't of caught on with the public, photography might have been just a passing fad. Luckily for us a photo revolution was soon ignited.
The site manager of the Fort McKavett State Historic Site in Menard County, Mobley has been enraptured with early mid-19th century history and the primitive photographs of the period his whole life. He even makes his own frames with precise detail.
My image is slowly coaxed out onto the front of the glass, like witchcraft, using flame to speed up the drying process. My features come through way more weathered than I imagined. Ambrotypes are not for the vain, or those looking for youthful selfies. They show every mile of life on your face - every cigarette, beer, and late night.
"I look like I make great tasting whiskey," I tell Mobley. "Holy hell, where did that gray beard come from?"
He laughs and says, "Yeah it has a way of making us look way more epic than we really are."