The process of making an ambrotype doesn’t leave much room for error.
When Eric Overton sets out to photograph landscapes in the 21st century using the process — which was developed in the 1850s and became largely obsolete by the 1870s — he carries 150 pounds of equipment in two backpacks slung over his shoulder.
The equipment includes a camera, a tripod and the chemical solutions he needs to develop the photographs in a mobile darkroom, occasionally a two-man tent.
In a nod to the photographers who pioneered the technique, he uses High West whiskey bottles to hold the chemical solutions.
It’s not an easy feat: There are days when he is unable to make a single image.
“Being in the natural environment makes it challenging, fun, frustrating,” he said. “It makes you run the gamut of emotions and ask yourself why you’re doing it this way.”
There are only about 10 minutes from the time the wet collodion plate is prepared until it’s processed.
Elemental challenges also arise. If Overton happens to leave his equipment in his truck overnight in Yosemite National Park, where temperatures dip below freezing, that could mess with the chemical balance and ruin his chances of getting photographs that day.
With all of those obstacles and the widespread availability of digital cameras, Overton is acutely aware that there are easier and more precise ways to capture a landscape. But for him the old technique is less about precision than it is about the process.
“Every time an image would develop in front of me in the darkroom and I could see the speed at which the image appears, that moment when the picture emerges, it’s really just an incredible time,” Overton said.
“It’s such a playful thing as well,” he said. “I kind of lose myself when I’m out there photographing. I forget to eat or drink water. It’s just exciting.”
Overton appreciates the imperfection in his line of work.
“What attracts me more than the images hearkening to another era is the artifact that speaks to the process and the toil involved with making these photographs,” he said. “Every image has a degree of artifact or even error.”
He also likes that the final result is darker, grittier than what is produced by a modern camera.
“When a corner of the image cracks and folds apart it creates a moodiness or a little bit of a darkness to these Western images,” he said. “And that’s what to me is really more interesting.”
Thirteen of Overton’s ambrotypes, each about 8 by 10 inches, make up his “Western Gothic” show at Altamira Fine Art, which is on display until Oct. 19. The photographer will be at the gallery from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Saturday for a reception.