[Words: Paul d’Orléans. Photos: MotoTintype – Susan McLaughlin and Paul d’Orléans]

A dazzlingly hot July day in the California foothills is an atypical setting for a ghost story, but we weren’t looking for ghosts. Nor did it occur to us we’d been haunted, until our work was finished, and our ‘Wet Plate’ photographs were sitting to dry on a rack.  And when we finally sorted what had happened, we were chilled to the bone.

A spiritual photo edit?  Surely Kent didn’t deserve obscuring under a sheet of fog?  His little Velocette MAC is clear, as is our Sprinter/darkroom… [MotoTintype]
‘The unexpected’ is one of the most appealing qualities of the ‘Wet Plate/collodion’ photographic process, which was invented in 1850, as a much easier way to produce permanent images than the prior popular technique, the Daguerreotype.  Wet Plate a totally artisanal technique; you can’t buy simply film and take photos, you must buy raw chemicals and materials, and make your own ‘film’.  Learning how to light-sensitize a sheet of glass or a blackened metal plate is only half the process, albeit the most technical.  The other half is figuring what that ‘wet plate’ inside the camera is going to ‘see’, as the chemistry is only sensitive to the UV/blue spectrum of light, which we can’t actually see ourselves.  Thus, what we focus on (with our vintage 4″x5″ field camera) isn’t exactly what will turn out on our finished image. Wet Plate photographers concerned with perfect image quality go to great lengths to control all known variables afflicting the final image, like heat, chemical contamination, and random movements while pouring photo chemistry onto its plate.  Minimizing the risk of failure is the third half of the Wet Plate process, and one an aspiring photographer pays particular attention to; we give up on knowing exactly what the photo will ‘see’, but do our best to keep the variables down.

Our friend Blaise didn’t deserve his head cut off; how strange his t-shirt and the curtains are clear, but we captured only his right eye and ear! And, that isn’t his profile on the right, nor did he cast a shadow on the curtains – nor is Blaise a bald, bearded man…[MotoTintype]
The MotoTintype team – Susan McLaughlin and myself – use our Sprinter as a darkroom, as Wet Plates must be immediately processed after exposure, in a dark place.  Some photographers use small portable ‘dark boxes’, some shoot only in studios using a flash to control exposure, and some convert moving vans into enormous mobile camera/darkrooms. We fall closer to this end of the scale, risking constant changes of light, humidity, altitude, and temperature to take our shots of Motorcycle Cannonball riders and competitors at the Bonneville Salt Flats and El Mirage dry lake.

The main street of the little town of Volcano in a 1940s postcard. [MotoTintype]
In July 2013, we were in Volcano, CA,  enjoying the last day of the 2013 Velocette Summer Rally.  It’s an annual week-long vintage motorcycle ride, that I’d attended for 25 years, and Susan for just two. We’d been busy riding all week, with no chance to shoot Wet Plates, so were eager to take a few portraits on our last day.  We chose an abandoned wooden shop front (and old assay office) as our backdrop, right on the main street of that Gold Rush town, beside the historic St.George Hotel.  But there was a problem; every photo we took in front of the assay office was ‘ruined’ by strange effects over the hour we shot there, so we gave up and moved elsewhere.  After we moved, our shots were suddenly crystal-clear, with no mysterious ‘fogging’, and we were happy about that. We developed our photos in the van as we shot, but kept them in water (Tupperware!) until we could rinse them for 12 minutes in our hotel room.  While rinsed our plates in the hotel room, we noticed how bizarre the assay office photos were, with headless portraits, ghostly apparitions, and  finally, with the portrait of Carl, the face of a goblin, clear as day.

Who’s that peeping above Dick’s head? [MotoTintype]
We were a little freaked out, to be honest, and curious about that particular spot on the main street – what was special about it, and who lived/died there?  We asked the manager at the St. George Hotel about the assay office, was there anything she knew about its history?  We showed her our photos, and she wasn’t a bit surprised!  “This whole hotel is haunted – lots of folks see ghosts here, and we have TV crews come in looking for the supernatural all the time.  But that spot outside the hotel – that’s where a garrison of troops died of exposure in a freak Autumn blizzard, in the 1860s. It’s pretty haunted too.”

Carl, who’s that guy on your shoulder? I think we’d better shoot somewhere else…[MotoTintype]

Paul d’Orléans is the founder of TheVintagent.com. He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.
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