Simon Ridell’s Wet Plate Collodion

Healing and Self-Discovery Through the 19th Century Photographic Process

8 min read by Dmitri, with images by Si.

Simon Ridell is a fire, health and safety risk assessor who lives and works in the Scottish Highlands. The man is driven by the spirit of adventure, which in his case means trips and climbs across the local rugged terrain and coastal cliffs. Simon owes his love for the physical escapades to his father.

Unfortunately, his dad passed in front of Simon’s eyes some years ago, which lead to considerable mental anguish and increasingly dangerous stunts.

I am not Simon, though the need to push oneself to the limit in times of despair is familiar. A feeling of own life’s value being diminished once a part of it has been taken away, and the reward of an able body’s accomplishments can be powerful stuntman drivers.

Throughout the last couple of years, I have really worked on myself in terms of my psyche and realized that I wasn’t really addressing the issues I had; I was merely taking my mind of things, mostly in reckless pursuits that put my life needlessly in danger, essentially I would seek to push to that point where whatever I was doing would literally be a fine balance between life and death and that is when I felt alive.

Fortunately for Simon, his dad left him more than his physical aptitude. A 35mm SLR, Canon AE-1, which they used together on their trips, was Simon’s first camera. Eventually forgotten in favour of a digital point-and-shoot — only to be re-discovered after his dad’s passing.

Simon’s rural setting means no nearby labs, making home-development a must. As he continued working on his photography, Simon spent many hours online learning about various development processes and formats.

Along the way, he found new friends amongst film photographers; his trips began to take on creative goals. Simon’s next photographic advance was medium format film with Bronica ETRS, which served as a stepping stone towards his venture into large format photography.

“As soon as I started to shoot on large format, my world changed.”

When David Allen was over, staying with me, we got super drunk one night, and I ordered an Intrepid 8x10, their mark one version. I still use it in the studio now, although it’s been taken apart and converted to a monorail system using the front standard of a Toyo. For the rear standard, I simply made the rear 4x5 Toyo bigger to accommodate 8x10. Keith Moss introduced me to paper negatives, which I shot a lot, and still do… As soon as I started to shoot on large format, my world changed. I could actually create the art that I wanted to, in my way, being super immersed and focused. The movements that large format allows you are key, for me. I got into shooting portraits and really connected with that process… Now, four years after picking up dads AE1, here I am, a self-taught wet plate artist.

Wet plate collodion is an especially involved photographic process. Much like Simon’s physically-demanding adventures, it requires plenty of attention to detail, punctuation, timing, and technical know-how.

Though one does not have to scale a cliffside to get an image, wet plate photography is physically and mentally taxing. Some sessions would leave Simon exhausted yet happy.

Shooting collodion for me is a spiritual process, I put so much energy into it all, and I know that I, and those affected by the plate will ultimately benefit from the effort, positively. When you see people looking at their plate clearing and their image coming back to life, it’s an incredibly rewarding experience. I have had a tear in my eye quite a few times. When the plate comes out, I feel refreshed, and some people have likened it to feeling that the plate was a benchmark, allowing them to move on, in a way.

The chemicals that make the collodion react to blue light, much like Ilford’s Ortho emulsion, which emphasizes blemishes and imperfections on human skin while also giving a remarkable amount of contrast and depth to the eyes. Simon’s large format camera produces a razor-thin depth of field, further isolating the subject’s features.

The process involving brushing the solution onto metal plates is practically impossible to automate, making for unique, unreplicable positives — much like paintings. Simon takes those properties even further by layering exposures and working with his subjects to capture their innermost essence.

Somehow, wet plate collodion is entirely different from anything else that I’ve encountered in photography. It seems to encapsulate a person’s soul for those precious seconds. The fact that the same light that hits a person is kept in the silver on the plate is nigh on magic to me. Somehow, it is so much more incredible. What a lovely thing it is to be able to give light to someone’s soul, to be kept safe in such a beautiful metal. I see this as taking care of someone’s spirit.

When the pandemic struck, Simon was “in the world of pain,” as he describes. He continued to work as a self-employed risk assessor, which held the designation of a key (essential) worker but having type-one diabetes, he’s in a risk group for COVID-19. Simon’s wedding photography gigs, which he’d make extra income with while holding a camera, got postponed — a massive blow to his financial well-being; his studio stood empty as the country went into lockdown.

Left with little more to do, Simon continued to work on his craft, taking self-portraits through his large format lens:

“Shooting self-portraits is honestly what got me through, combined with the support of a few incredibly special people.”

Despite the world’s and personal adversities, Simon’s new photographic adventure helped him grow and connect with people who supported him on his journey. He also came to understand that his photography, particularly wet plate collodion, can also help others.

Simon knows I have suffered from complex PTSD for some 26 years and have not had a great deal of support either from the military or NHS. We thought it would be a good idea to try and show the world just how those of us who suffer in silence see the world from the inside of our minds… [The image Simon created] says so much without having to say an actual word. — Terry.

The image-making process is a therapy for both the photographer and the subject.

Terry.

Mental Collodion.

Naturally, Simon sparked a desire to make more photographs, the beautiful objects that put his and his clients’ minds at ease. To make that work, he’d have to equip a van and take his camera on the road.

The van itself will be absolutely rammed full of gear. I will require all sorts above and beyond the chemistry, cameras and plates, some of which definitely include a generator, lighting, and spares of everything… Every single shoot will be unique in terms of logistics. I can envisage one shoot taking an entire week when you consider preparing, travelling, shooting, and ensuring that the plate is varnished, scanned, and stowed away properly for archiving.

An ambitious project. Simon has already invested £3,000 of his own towards it and, undoubtedly, countless hours of personal time.

To help offset some of the costs, Simon created a GoFundMe page, where you can help Simon get on the road.

I would like to join Simon in the appeal to support his art. Donations like these, product purchases, memberships, and other financial investments on behalf of people like you and I are what make our creative world go around.

Small businesses, projects, and experiments are capable of creating honest connections between people. Their instigators care about their work and our collective well-being. They contribute to the economy by supporting other small businesses and paying taxes that they owe.

Whether you choose to support the Mental Collodion project or not, Simon says that he is determined to push it through with whatever means he has.

 ☝︎Further reading: You can learn more about Mental Collodion on Emulsive.org, Lomography Magazine, and his website.