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With Civil War-Era Photo Process, Kansas City Photographer Takes 'Timeless' Pictures Of Big Boy

Kansas City was one of the stops for Big Boy, the world's largest operating steam locomotive and the train has rolled into Union Station twice during the past few weeks. Photographer Steve Wilson captured the train with a 19th-Century photographic process used to document the American Civil War.

When the world's largest working locomotive chugged into Union Station releasing clouds of steam, hundreds of people showed up to get a closer look. At 132 feet long and weighing 1.2 million pounds, the train is a massive monument to the age of steam.

The train was here as part of a national 10-state tour that started in Texas and ends later this month in Wyoming.

Photographer Steve Wilson stopped by to photograph the train and brought a crew of six volunteers to assist him.

Julie Denesha
Photographer Steve Wilson assesses the light before placing the film holder in his 8x10 Deardorff camera. Wilson was at Union Station to photograph "Big Boy" a famed locomotive built in the 1940s.

“The train was one of those ways of traveling that just to me, it's just intensely nostalgic," Wilson said. "I'm pretty much a nostalgic kind of person that drives a lot of what I shoot.”

Wilson drew a bit of a crowd himself with his unusual wooden Deardorff 8x10 camera in tow. He ducked under a cloth draped over the camera to bring the scene into focus.

Beneath it, Wilson saw an upside down world. The lens translated the scene onto the glass plate at the back of the camera. He popped his head out to chat with Frankye Stanley, to explain how the lens projects the image on the back of the glass.

“Oh my God," Stanley said. "It’s upside down. This is so cool.”

Julie Denesha
Beneath the focusing cloth, Wilson sees an upside down world. The lens projects the scene onto the glass plate at the back of the camera.

She added, "Not only do I get a chance to experience one of the the greatest locomotives ever, but I can see old cameras too, so this is amazing."

What is wet-plate collodion

Wilson takes pictures on glass plates using a method called wet-plate collodion, a format made famous by battlefield photographers during the American Civil War.

This type of photography is part art and part science. Each glass plate has to be coated, sensitized, exposed and developed before it dries.

Wilson eyed the light streaming onto the tracks.

"On a bright sunny day this would be a two-second exposure. I’m going to guess 15 seconds," Wilson estimated.

Once Wilson made the exposure he hustled to develop the picture before the plate dried. Temperature is key.

“Heat is the number one factor, heat and humidity, because the major components of the collodion are alcohol and ethanol," Wilson explained. "Ethanol or ether boils at 91 degrees, so it's very volatile.

"And once it's exposed, it immediately starts to evaporate and once a wet plate dries out, it's dead," Wilson continued. "You really can't shoot it.”

Julie Denesha
Fellow photographer Sara Silks was on hand to assist Wilson at Union Station. During the lengthy washing process, Silk pulled an aluminum plate from a water bath. Wilson captured images of the train on both metal and glass.

Wilson has a darkroom tent with a portable wet-plate lab where he can develop each image on the spot. With all the challenges involved, Wilson said he wonders how early photographers managed it.

“There are tricks I can do," Wilson said. "I can keep the developer cool, I can keep the collodion cool, and I can run like hell to get it shot and processed.”

In the tent, Wilson poured developer onto the plate and a silvery image began to reveal itself.

“We're really talking about silver on glass," Wilson explained. "It's a very fragile emulsion until it's varnished. So you can just lightly touch it and wipe the silver off the plate. So it's extremely sensitive to touch.”

Wilson said all this work is worth the trouble.

“To me, those things are timeless," Wilson asserted. "And if everything's prepared right, it will last forever.”

Julie Denesha is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Kansas City. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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