Oh, the smell. It’s the first thing that brands on your mind. If you’re not around it, or haven’t shot for sometime, the first time you open up those bottles, it’s like coming home. And to be in my makeshift darkroom, just a wooden box with a blackout curtain tossed over it, with the smells and the thick air, and to see that first image appear after I poured the developer – I will never forget it. It’s crazy to me how making an image can be so moving to one’s soul. Hell, it’s just a photo, right? ……but it just grabs you, and when it has a hold on you, you will never be free from it even if you wanted to. Just like farming or working the land has that hold on me too, never can I be far from the smell of new cut hay or the soil just plowed over, or the smell of fir boughs and pitch as I thin the weak and dying trees from the forest. Smells are the most evocative sense to me, and now I can add the smell of ether and collodion. The sweet smell of the silver bath. The smells in my life: they will be what I remember most, I’m sure, until the day I die.
My dream of shooting wet plate did not come easy. It took over 6 months of dreaming, planning, working; wondering if I could ever do it at all. I am a farmer and logger by trade, but with the way I do things, they never made me much money. Plenty of hard work, mind you; but not much in monetary reward. So, with that said, buying any nice cameras was simply not going to happen, and just trying to pull 350 bucks together to get the chemistry was going to be a long shot.
I work with my hands, and I love to build things. Pretty quick I worked out that I could build a camera to get started. Not only would it get my foot in the door, but it would keep my mind on the ball as I worked to put together the money to buy what I needed. However, I was well aware that I would have no talent when it came to manufacturing lenses.
To find my lens, I went on ebay. Fifty bucks is about all I had to spend on one, and that isn’t much. I bid and bid on lenses, over and over again, just to lose out at the last second. I never really had an available fifty bucks, either; I was just hoping for the best. The farm gets most of any money I make: any farmer will tell you that – you have to feed the animals before all else. In the end, I managed it – I won a small lens, from Tony from England. So I started on my camera, making it from cedar, not for any real reason other than just because I have plenty of cedar, and I mill it on my sawmill.
Six months in, that is, six months after coming up with my grand plan, I had gathered a few bucks and got my chemistry in hand, but not my camera. I was still building it – still working out light leaks, for one. I had gone with a simple design for a sliding box camera – no complicated bellows and as few moving parts as possible. Nevertheless, the sliding box wasn’t sliding as well as it should.
I couldn’t wait any longer. I had my grandmother’s old Brownie, with its big crack in the case, and not in the best of shape. I cut some glass to just fit. The glass was a bit too thick, so the camera didn’t close very well, but damn, I didn’t care, I taped that sucker up anyway and shot a few plates.