In the age of cellphone cameras and Instagram filters, photography has never been more accessible or easier to produce. But photographer Bill Hao is taking a much tougher—and older—route to capture the beauty of Canada’s Rocky Mountains.
Until the COVID-19 pandemic, Hao spent 17 years operating a tour company, a time in which he became compelled to photograph the Rockies. Now he devotes all his time to the craft using a 19th-century photo development process called “collodion wet plate” photography.
The process requires taking and developing photos while in the field, and in order to pull it off, Hao transformed a 50-seat tour bus into a mobile darkroom big enough to house the antique camera he built from scratch.
In 2015, he began creating wet plate photos after learning about them from old books and the internet. He started off slightly smaller—his portable darkroom consisted of a foldable wooden box that could be used for both the developing process and transporting materials. He then upgraded to a Dodge minivan with the back two rows of seats removed, before finally switching to the bus last summer after working on it for eight months.
Hao’s renovations included separating the darkroom from the rest of the bus, adding water tanks, a sink, a water hose connected to an electrical pump, and red lights which allow him to see what he’s doing in the darkroom without ruining his photos as he develops them. He also needed to build large developing trays to soak the panes of glass he uses in the necessary chemicals.
To create a collodion wet plate photo, you have to maneuver a plate of glass or metal between multiple chemicals, then to the camera, then back to more chemicals, all within minutes.
Hao first sets up his camera, which rests on three tripods instead of just one because of its size, and adjusts the focus. Then, in his darkroom, he coats a piece of glass with collodion, a clear, syrupy mixture made of raw cotton and nitric and sulfuric acids dissolved in ether and alcohol, as well as iodide and bromide. Next, he dips the glass into silver nitrate, which binds to the iodide and bromide and forms a layer that is sensitive to light. He then places it in the camera, where rather than pushing a button to engage the shutter, the lens cap is simply removed then replaced to expose the photo. He brings the glass back to the darkroom, where it is placed into two different chemical solutions: first, a developer, causing the parts of the glass exposed to light to turn silver, followed by a fixer, which fixes the image onto the glass permanently. Finally, he washes the glass off with water. This whole process needs to be completed within about 15 minutes, before the glass dries.
Unlike a film negative, which can be scanned and printed multiple times and in various sizes, wet plate photos can’t be enlarged or copied. The glass Hao inserts into the camera becomes the photograph itself. “I have to make a bigger camera if I want to get a bigger picture,” he explains, which is why he shoots in ultra-large format to capture the details of the landscapes he aims to preserve in his photos.
Although currently focused on the Rockies, Hao says he’d someday like to photograph Yosemite National Park like his idol Ansel Adams, as well as Atlantic Canada and even Europe (although transporting his equipment there would be near impossible). He also wants to exhibit his work in the future, although navigating the art and gallery world hasn’t been easy, especially with the amount of time he spends off-grid, in nature.
The huge amount of time and effort needed to produce wet plate photos is worth it for Hao, for the striking, shimmering effect of the silver particles that make up each image, and for the amount of creative control he can have.
“I can participate in the whole process, from the production of the negative to the completion of a photo, which involves a lot of physical and chemical knowledge, as well as a lot of artistic and aesthetic knowledge,” he says. Through it all, he draws inspiration from capturing a natural landscape threatened by modern industry. “My wet plate photos will last for at least 200 years,” he says. “But will the beauty in the photos still be there?”