The Virtue of the Frame Pt. II

In part two if this 3 part series, Jack McLain shares with us his thoughts on the virtue of the frame and what photography means to him.

Part II

“A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart and leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it. It is, in a word, effective.”
— Irving Penn

Next, let’s look at ‘What do I want my photographs to be?’ Just a brief note here about the form photography takes on. Before we jump in to the film vs digital wars, or whatever photographic wars we want to engage in, maybe we should ask ourselves, “What is it that photography does specifically, for me?” In looking in to our own attractions and repulsions, our own motivations for creating a particular image using a particular method and process, we can begin to understand the origins of the itches we’re attempting to scratch. That itch is what we want the photograph to do, and by understanding their origins and the ends we’re trying to achieve, we may be able to scratch them in a way that’s more satisfying.

Wet Plates

Let me give an example from my own experience with wet plates. When I started studying the history of photography as part of my Masters, I discovered this early photographic process, refined and perfected by Frederick Scott Archer, one of the several people who researched and created early photographic processes. Basically, you pour goop (collodion) onto a glass or aluminium plate, soak it in silver nitrate in the dark, put it in a plate holder (under red light), take the image, return to the darkroom and develop it, dry it and finally apply a thin coat of varnish to seal the photograph against time, the elements and mostly, sticky fingers. Why did I choose to work in this process?

Sample wet plate collodion tintype. Part of the work Memento Vivere.

I chose it for the quality of the images, certainly, rich tones and images of astonishing resolution that possess a depth, a warmth, and an inner light that I haven’t experienced in other processes.
But also because of the uniqueness of the images that I create. When we can all pull out our phones and rattle off 30-50 frames in a second or two, culling them until we find the one or two that we then edit to otherworldly perfection and distribute digitally within moments, there is something I love about creating an object that is unique, flawed, and physical.
I can scan the images for digital distribution, yes, but the plate itself is truly one of a kind. This physicality, this materiality, is what I love about this process. These are deeply sensory objects; holding one of these plates, feeling the coolness of the metal, looking deeply into the rich browns and cool silvers, even smell!
The varnish many wet plate photographers use in the final step is sandarac with lavender oil used in its creation. The finished, varnished plate has a faint whiff of lavender. And our sense of smell is deeply intertwined with our capacity for memory. These are some of the reasons I love this medium, but it has taken me quite a while to understand my attraction to the process, and it requires some self knowledge and self honesty to know that it’s not the perfect process for every photograph; like me, it has limitations.

It lends itself well to portraits, still life and some landscape work, it would be an abysmal choice for street or sports photography. And I need to acknowledge and accept these limitations in creating images.
It’s important to know that I didn’t know all of these things going in to shooting wet plates. Some of this began to emerge as I looked a scads of these plates layed out on my kitchen table as a group and began asking myself “Why this process? What is it you want these pictures to do?” As the number of images grew, I began to see what I was trying to get at with the images.


I also chose this process because of the time we’re living in. There is a warmth to wet plates that I find reassuring against the harsh uncertainty of the pandemic we’re all trying to navigate. Not nostalgia, per se, but creating modern images using an old process helps me to know the world will continue moving forward, even if I don’t know where it will end up. There’s also a comfort to holding a physical object in an age where we are not supposed to be physically close to one another for the time being. These are intangible, personal reasons, but I only began to become aware of them by reflecting on why I was being attracted to making images using this process.

Just as there is not one definition of photography, there is no one reason why we choose to make the photographs we make using the tools we choose to make them with. We make these choices for not one, single, crystalline reason, but for a messy, diverse stewpot of delicious reasons, because, well, human beings are complicated. We like some things more than others. We have stories we want to tell, and, as photographers, those stories are often visual stories.
We should understand ourselves and the stories we want to tell well enough to understand what is the best way of telling it. There are different genres of literature, each with different features and qualities, and no one can do everything, but knowing that I’d rather read a science fiction novel offers me clues about what I do like, and don’t like, and may help me to tell my own stories. Knowing what the stories we have within us are helps us to make choices about telling them in ways that we feel are effective and satisfying.

The point of all this is that we should reflect on what we want our images to do prior to picking up a camera. This will help us know which camera to pick up. Which film to load in to it. What to process it with. Which paper we would like it printed on. We shouldn’t get stuck on it; we’ll never achieve a perfect understanding of ourselves, and creating an amazing photograph with an imperfect understanding is much better than never creating anything because we haven’t achieved perfect understanding. But knowing why certain stories are important to us makes a difference in how we tell them. And this will allow us to tell them better.

Thanks to Jack for sharing this piece. Part three will be coming soon, you can see part one here. Please feel free to comment and share your thoughts.