Moira McIver, Shadow Catcher, November 2016, Ards Art Centre, NI

As an invitation to a Shadow Catcher ( in my thought a rendez-vous with Mnemosyne)  the artist states:

In this exhibition in the Sunburst gallery in Ards Arts centre, I have used the historical photographic process called wet plate collodion. Wet plate collodion was invented by Frederick Scott Archer in 1851. This process involves coating plates made from either glass or aluminium (originally used iron or tin) with first collodion and then silver nitrate. The plate is then exposed through the camera and developed and fixed for exposure to white light. The camera needs to be suitable for holding these glass or metal plates in plate holders. I use a Russian FK plate camera which is from about the 1930s and was used for studio portraits and passport photography.


The process involves lengthy preparation. She wrote to me:

I have been working with wet plate collodion for the last three years, mostly in the summer, when I get a week or so, to set up a darkroom and work at this technique. It takes quite a lot of time to get the process working correctly as you must first master how to pour the chemicals to coat the plate correctly and then get all the chemistry working to get a good result. The silver nitrate can be quite tricky to get right as if it is too fresh it will fog and it will lose contrast when over-used. The collodion also requires some time to get used to the process of coating the plate, so that the whole plate is covered without gaps or bubbles. The collodion is sensitive to temperature and will pour quickly in warm conditions, more slowly in the cold. The bottle of collodion also must be kept still to prevent dust being stirred from the bottom of the bottle and ending up on the plate causing white spots in the final image. The plate must be developed immediately when exposed, therefore one must have a darkroom or ‘dark box’ close-by to prepare and develop the plates.

The advantage wet plate process has over Daguerreotype consists of a choice: it allows either positive or negative image. The latter  facilitates multiple positives.  McIver also researched its history: it was used during the American Civil War not only to document soldiers on a battlefield (Matthew Brady), the collodium  was used to knit the wounds.

McIver illustrated the process in a glass cabinet – of the opposite side from the  camera.


The wet plate process, that artist feels”…has an ability to unsettle the contemporary relationships with photography. It sets the subject into another sense of time and place…there is an unpredictability or wildness  inherent in the process”

The exhibits are grouped according the place and time they were made.


In 2014 a residency at the Tyrone Guthrie centre  led to construction of “dark box” to take outdoors, to make the wet place in it and to make images “within minutes of exposure” with it.


Darkness Descending, 2014


Each print is an after-life of the exposure, shaped by the mundane matters of preparation of the plate and “the dark box” for the  image becoming visible :”The dark box seems almost like a magic box where these images are revealed”

Two weeks in 2015 at Clo Ceardlann in Donegal were spent in a bright lit studio with a small dark room attached.


Cyclamen floating

The painterly marks result from a swish of silver nitrate around the edges caught on the wet plate.   The background behind the plant is a cloth with printed image, which may invite a false guess that the image has been altered by using Photoshop.   Three more images stand for that kind of experience, all portraits of women, the artists mother and two nieces.













The style of this image connects with the Guthrie group as well as being nearest to a more modern photography techniques.  Although painterly, its highlights are dry.

McIver scanned the images and used them in a simple animation, presented  as a video on a small Sony box monitor. The sense of intimate encounter evoked by the 2015 set seems levelled and wrenched outside, as it is broadcast over and over…

There are three original plates that bring  forth a surprisingly poetic  experience:

” I had been playing with some of the original plate holders, standing them up and creating triangular shapes between the slide holder and the plate. I discovered that when I put one of my glass plates against the black of the inside of the plate, it was visible. I enjoyed that the image was visible only from certain angles. This again played with the sense of the image being quite ethereal.”




McIver scanned images for animation and layered a red transparent circle over them



The images achieve resonance with something else at times releasing the original object, at times not.  It is akin releasing a censor in our consciousness. It also insists that artist may lose a control. As a reward – under the surface of image scanned from life is something akin oceanic meaning. Snatched from brief encounters the images do both – document the encounter and fly away from it as existential anxiety buffer into the sphere of symbolic immortality.  McIver is never irreverent, she  is audacious with  the archetypal visualisation of a portrait.  In the beginning I compared this exhibition to a rendez-vous  with Mnemosyne, the Titan goddess who with Zeus produced the Nine Muses, while herself was an offspring of Earth (Terra/Gaea) and Heavens (Uranus/Coelus). Photography is a visual memory tool par excellence, even if its relationship to truth is slippery.

The rich tonality of black and white  is reminiscent of those not so rare decisions by painters to make black painting( eve if not quite black only, Goya), monochrome black drawings (G Seurat)  and even the black figures painting on early Greek ceramics.  It is like a remembrance of sorrow in a song chosen by Aoide, named as Mnemosyne’s daughter, when the muses are reduced to only three, by the respected Roman Scholar Marcus Terencius Varro( 116BC-27 BC). The other two he allowed,  were Melete, the muse of practice, and Mneme, that of memory.

McIver evoked these three: memory, practice and poetry, as if effortlessly, by reviving the magic of collodion.


Images courtesy Moira McIver

Quotes from her letter to me in December, 2016


About Slavka Sverakova

writer on art
This entry was posted in essay and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.