rain gods

(I’ve returned to London, briefly, and back to the City Interwebs. I’ll back-post the Lacock Adventure from here…)


Well, um… the Rain Gods have certainly delivered. Maybe I shouldn’t have taunted them… We faced down a full weekend of chill wind and constant rain, and of course I’ve already caught myself a very British cold. Between the storms and the sniffles, I have hardly slept at all, and I fear my brain is working at half-speed.

Nevertheless, the class got off to a pretty good start. At least we’re not doing Photogenic Drawings! Talbot’s Calotype is a wet-paper process, and developed-out (instead of printed-out) so exposure times can be rather quick – relative to the era, that is. Even in this rain we might be able to get away with 20-30 seconds for a decent exposure. The gray light can be rather pretty, in fact, and as long as it’s not actually raining on our heads it’s fine. Of course, it is often raining on our heads, and you should see us traipsing through the puddles with large Black Arts cameras, tripods and umbrellas…

There are just a few of us, thank goodness – Malin and Matt, our star students, and our intern Addison, who’s smart and hilarious and who will say the oddest things just when we need him to. Rachel from the Museum is with us as our guide and host, and Roger Watson stops by from time to time. Fortunately we also have the brilliant Richard Cynan Jones along for the ride, whose knowledge of and passion for the many variants of early photography on paper seem inexhaustible. It’s a tiny fantastic group.

We spend Saturday mostly shooting in the area around the darkroom, which is, of course, full of old stone barns and ivied walls and ancient pear trees. There is no lack of grand old beauty… There’s also some old man’s groovy sportscar parked out front, of which Matt manages to make an excellent first calotype. We have a white tent set up outside for shooting when the rain gets heavy, which Malin uses to shoot a portrait of one of her daughter’s stuffed bunnies. There’s plenty to do, and plenty gets done, despite the weather.

The students have a chance to do the whole process from start to finish, having prepared their own paper before lunch by iodizing with silver and potassium iodide and then washing for two hours. While we wait for that, they can shoot one of the many sheets I iodized the night before (stepping away from the Michael Palin festivities at the Museum from time to time to watch over the paper as it washed.) By the end of the day, though, they’re shooting their own paper, and it looks pretty perfect.

One of the main differences with Talbot’s process versus the later advancements is that we’re brushing on most of the solutions, for the hand-made look that drew me to Talbot in the first place. It is, perhaps, more troublesome than floating or soaking the paper, but it uses much less chemistry, and exposes and develops very quickly. However, that means that there’s a certain dexterity that needs to be learned here, to coat quickly and evenly with a cotton ball dipped in solution. It just takes practice, but so far the students are doing very well.

The rain never lets up, and promises to be worse though the night, so before we’re done for the evening, Rachel sets up trays outside the darkroom to collect rainwater. For some odd reason, distilled water isn’t easy to come by here in Wiltshire (along with many other things) – the best we can usually find is de-ionized water for cars or something. We’re hoping the rain will be pure enough to use for our processes, so we can waste less, too. I am choosing to have some small magical belief in the special power of Lacock water… Also, this is not my first time using rainwater so I’m hopeful.

We’re all pretty tired just from the first day, and I need to get some rest tonight if I can; I don’t think I’d last the weekend with this head cold. I’d been looking forward to another hearty British meal, perhaps with another lovely Scotch (so good and abundant around here!) Rachel, Matt and I end up going to the George – another very old pub that now encompasses rooms that once housed Talbot’s local carpenter, where his first Mousetrap Cameras were made. They have this crazy wheel connected to a spit on which a little dog would run, turning the spit over the flame… No dogs helping cook today, but the lamb rack was delicious anyway. Rachel entertained us with stories from her recent months in Kosovo, and I went for Brandy in place of Scotch, in hopes of a cure. Friendship and good food might be all the medicine I need… and, with luck, a decent night’s sleep.

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