Photographer Uses 150-Year-Old Photo Technique To Create Painterly Vintage-Looking Portraits

Artistic Wet Collodion Photography by Barbara Cole

Fine art photographer Barbara Cole is known for her artistic underwater photography. But when the temperatures in her native Canada dip low enough that her pool is unusable for this type of photoshoot, she needs to pivot. This is where her series Shadow Dancing was born. This ongoing series of wet collodion photographs marries Cole's modern vision with a turn-of-the-century technique.

The wet collodion allows Cole to produce the hazy, dreamlike qualities of her underwater photography, all while in the comfort of her home. While we typically think of wet collodion as a black-and-white process, Cole gives things a contemporary twist by adding color to the tintype. After working with wet collodion for a decade, Cole has an even deeper appreciation for the manual process and the technical skill that it requires.

“Working with wet collodion ambrotypes is as close as photography gets to making a painting in my mind,” she tells My Modern Met. “There is a great deal of prep work just to get the materials ready to receive the image. You are cutting and cleaning glass, preparing the chemistry, slowly working on one picture at a time, and, in the end, choosing the image and protecting it with a varnish. I love that the picture can only happen if you’ve put in all of this work. This is a far cry from working with the automatic imagery we get from digital files and cell phone images.”

In Shadow Dancing, we see different models swathed in elegant dresses. Given the nature of wet collodion, at first glance the photographs appear vintage. But upon closer inspection, it's clear that that's not the case. Cole expertly plays with light and shadow in the series. This allows the viewer to enjoy the work on several levels. First, for the models, their beautiful features and poses. Then, for the shapes and forms that their bodies create as shadows are cast along the walls and floors.

While Cole believes that it's up to each viewer to read into the image in their own way, her goal is to create work that sparks the imagination. “I hope that viewers stay with these images and attempt to unpack the little stories that these moments in time tell. I hope people will ask questions about the place and emotions and the small situations that are unfolding in these pictures.”

Shadow Dancing is an ongoing wet collodion series by underwater photographer Barbara Cole.

Barbara Cole Wet Collodion Photography Series

Artistic Wet Collodion Photo of a Woman Sitting on the Floor

Artistic Wet Collodion Photography by Barbara Cole

She works on the series when the winter temperatures prevent her from shooting underwater.

Photographer Barbara Cole at Work

Wet Collodion Photography by Barbara Cole

Behind the Scenes of Wet Collodion Photo Shoot by Barbara Cole

“Working with wet collodion ambrotypes is as close as photography gets to making a painting in my mind.”

Wet collodion photoshoot, Barbara Cole

Shadow Dancing Series by Barbara Cole

Woman in Flowy Dress Sitting Against Wall with Vintage Wallpaper

Watch this short video to gain more insight into her creative process and love for this vintage photography process.

Barbara Cole: Website | Instagram

My Modern Met granted permission to feature photos by Barbara Cole.

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Striking Underwater Portraits Reflect Artist’s Own Mental Health Struggles [Interview]

Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a Staff Editor and Digital Media Specialist for My Modern Met, as well as a curator and art historian. Since 2020, she is also one of the co-hosts of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. She earned her MA in Renaissance Studies from University College London and now lives in Rome, Italy. She cultivated expertise in street art which led to the purchase of her photographic archive by the Treccani Italian Encyclopedia in 2014. When she’s not spending time with her three dogs, she also manages the studio of a successful street artist. In 2013, she authored the book 'Street Art Stories Roma' and most recently contributed to 'Crossroads: A Glimpse Into the Life of Alice Pasquini'. You can follow her adventures online at @romephotoblog.
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