The portrait exposures have been taking roughly three seconds. Sometimes I've had to try a two second exposure if someone's skin is very fair and a four second exposure for sitters whose skin has been a little darker.
The duration of the exposure leaves a lot that can happen during the process...people can move, blink, they can change expressions and their minds can shift as the exposure waxes and wanes. With each passing moment, the plate has the capacity to change greatly.
I do feel as if I'm capturing more than a moment...a series of moments, really. Photography has often been characterized as "capturing a moment." This is what my students often say when I ask them to define photography. Although I sometimes disagree with this definition, I can understand how it makes sense and is something that one would go to as a definition of photography.
I am capturing time as it passes, but I'm compressing many moments and squeezing that passing of time into one exposure. It's as if a series of moments has been condensed and compressed to show the sitter as more of an individual than just a single click of the shutter. My exposures are deliberate, slow and purposeful. But, somehow, I feel as if the portraits sometimes contain spontaneous moments I never would have expected.
I shoot a couple of plates first and then interview the sitter for about 15 minutes. I'm always a little nervous that as I begin talking to them, my portrait of them will not make sense anymore. I'm afraid that what I saw as their essence won't be true. So far, I've been pleasantly surprised at how truthful the collodion process has been.
It seems as though the process is allowing me to capture more than just a physical appearance of a person.
Perhaps because the process is only sensitive to UV light, it sees more deeply into the person. It negates the fluorescent and tungsten lights in the room that can trick the eye into seeing what's not really there. It pulls out wrinkles and lines that the naked eye tends to dissolve. It sees freckles and blemishes that reside just below the surface. It erases blemishes on people with more melanin in their skin. It reveals the ruggedness in mature men and revels in the youthful skin of a young sitter.
I feel as though I have a new definition of "exposure." Besides the traditional sense of the word exposure, I feel as though each picture exposes the sitter and reveals a little more of each person. I've been encouraged when the sitter has marveled at the picture washing in the water bath and remarked at how they feel the plate has shown them for how they really feel they are inside. I don't think this is me as a photographer being a particularly amazing image maker, but a combination of things...a connection with the camera on both my part and the part of the subject, a series of moments that we are sharing, those moments compressing into a single plate, the exposure revealing something that resides underneath a sitter's skin.