What did you bring home from Burning Man? Definitely a sheen of dust and hopefully new perspectives and friends and unforgettable memories. But how about a piece of metal with your image on it that will last for hundreds of years? If you were lucky enough to run into Brian Sullivan’s roving darkroom on the playa, then you definitely went home with a memento like no other.
For four years, Sullivan and his small crew have been gifting one-of-a-kind wet plate photographs to the people of Black Rock City. For those who encountered his project out on the playa, the 165-year-old technology felt just as miraculous as taking pictures on our phones. The old-fashioned technique transported us to the dawn of photography, in a place with as much artistic potential as that exciting era.
A plaque on the custom-made silver space-age ‘pod’ that serves as darkroom and giant camera explains the history and process of wet plate photography. You’ll quickly realize that Sullivan’s vision of giving Burners “something precious, hard to make and impossible to reproduce” is no simple gesture. He estimates that each plate costs about $100 to gift, including the cost of building the darkroom as well as the supplies.
“As alternative photographic processes go wet plate is one of the more difficult requiring not only an on-site darkroom but decent weather and chemicals that are persnickety to say the least,” Sullivan wrote on a fundraising page. You can smell the chemicals anytime the door opens, and Sullivan’s right hand, photographer Susanna Frohman, needed to work swiftly and cautiously to get it right.
In 2015, the wet plate project’s camera/darkroom was parked near three backdrops — R-Evolution, the Temple of Promise and the Totem of Confessions — for 4-5 hours each day. The settings were chosen for their iconic nature; they defined the playa’s 2015 ‘skyline.’
Nearby Burners would saunter over, curious about what was up. A wrangler kept the flow going and prepped subjects on ideal poses — namely, ones with strong lines. Each person had to hold perfectly still for a two-second exposure but beyond that they were free to be themselves.
After the plates were sensitized by dipping a collodion-flowed plate into silver nitrate for about three minutes, they were exposed to the light and developed inside the darkroom. Then they were carefully dipped into a series of fix and wash baths womanned here by Erica Bartel (that’s Sullivan looking on on Tutu Tuesday). It was thrilling to see the images emerge on the metal.
The plates aired dry before being heated, lacquered with a gum sandarac and lavender oil mix, and heated a final time to seal the plate, making them as indestructible as they were artful.
For the people receiving the plates, the gift was special and symbolic. “To me, our tintype was an expression of openness and surrender,” said David Mak, who got one after years of hearing about it. “Just like some of the many things on the playa, the more open we are, the more receptive we become to receiving beautiful creations like the tintype project — a singular moment captured in permanence.”
Sullivan says this was the last year for the project as-is before it moves on to a new leader and he tackles another art project. In all, 140+ wet plates were made in 2015, and about 350 in the project’s history. It’s amazing to think how just two Mississippis worth of light exposure manifests a physical object that will outlast us all, as well as our children and children’s children. How wild to create the inverse of the impermanence that otherwise defines the playa!