Meet Hunter Helmstaedter | Wandering Wet Plates
Artist + Film Maker + Photographer | @wanderingwetplates
Tell us about your back story leading to owning Wandering Wet Plates? How did you get into this style of Photography and how does the process work?
My name is Hunter, I am a photographer currently infatuated with an early process known as “collodion wet plate”. My love for this process began in 2017 when my fiancé Ming and I had our engagement photos taken by local-legend/ art-guru Mark Sink. I had been a fan of his work for some time and somehow fate would have it a mutual friend introduced Ming and I to Mark and his lovely wife, also heavy-hitting artist/photographer, Kristen. We spent a casual afternoon making five or so tintype portraits. Something about the giant, old, wooden camera boasting its exquisite antique brass lens coupled with this slow and steady flow Mark calls it “dancing in the darkroom”.
They call it “wet plate” because from the moment you pour on the first coat of chemistry, through sensitizing, loading, exposing, and immediately developing each image, the surface of the plate can never dry out. Therefore, you are constantly running, or “rhythmically dancing” as Mark would say, from darkroom to camera and back. There is a point in the process known as “the fix” where the image is revealed like magic right in front of you. The first time I witnessed it I was instantly hooked. A year or so later I made a collaborative short-film with Mark. At the time I was deeply submerged in the digital world.
I ran a little studio on the south side of Denver and was shooting primarily fashion. With help from some really good friends, we produced a short fashion film we called “The Art of Fashion”. It was an ode to Mark and brought my love for fashion and his wet plate artistry together in a wonderful short story. While creating the film I soaked in the process. Again fate would send me an unexpected blow: for reasons beyond my control, I was forced to close my studio and lost my home in Denver. My life was uprooted. I bounced around town for a bit staying with family but eventually felt the calling to New York City. Before I made my move out east permanent, Mark bestowed on myself the gift of knowledge and encouragement. We spent one more afternoon making tintypes together but this time I was pouring the plate and he was guiding me through the process. The first shot I took on my little 4×5 field camera came out stunning! At that moment, like being knighted, Mark tapped his hand on each of my shoulders and said something along the lines of “I dub thee a wet plater. welcome to the club kid”.
Fast forward, Ming and I moved to NYC. I spent 50-60 hr-work-weeks grinding my way from the gutter up in the Photo/Video studio and equipment industry. Eventually I landed an amazing job working in the equipment room at a big studio. I was on a path to a real career and feeling good about it. I spent days off making wet plates and kept focused on the job at hand. I even saved up the money and bought my own 8×10 camera and a little antique Pezval lens. Things were going pretty dang good for us but little did we know, fate’s unusually cruel yet rewarding hand would deal us all an unforgettable blow.
March 2020 we watched our calendars clear and suddenly there was no work. The city was shut down along with my career path.
During the lockdown there was a two-week stay-at-home order; like many photographers, I was compelled to explore and photograph the empty streets of New York City. Unlike most photographers, I had to drag my entire darkroom with me. Ming and I packed a shopping trolly with equipment and chemicals then hiked it up and down the subway station stairs, on the train, and all over the city. We shot a series of tintypes featuring: Chinatown, Time Square, even Coney Island, and more. There is an image I made of downtown SOHO that looks like something out of a history book. Just like before, when the fixer hit the plate and the image came up, in that moment a light went on. I knew I was going to be a full-time wet plate photographer. This was my path now.
Ming and I stayed in NYC through that summer but eventually felt a new adventure calling us. While visiting family back in Denver, we bought a school bus and converted it into our full-time home on wheels. We hit the road and travelled from Denver south through New Mexico, Texas, then east all the way to Florida. After a month there we shot up the east coast all the way to northeast Maine, Bar Harbor. The whole way we made tintypes, met new friends, and even made a baby! Yes that’s right, we found out Ming was pregnant. That set us on a journey back to Colorado to have our son and fifth generation CO local. My great grandparents settled in CO, my grandmother was born in Leadville, both my parents and myself were born and raised here in Denver. It felt like a good idea to return home to be with our families during the new chapter.
Our son Calum is now 4 months old and we are gearing up to hit the road again soon. Unfortunately our bus’s engine decided to keel over dead forcing us to raise the funds to replace it. No small undertaking but we decided to move forward and give the old girl a new heart. Luckily Colorado has been very good to us.
Do you have any events or projects coming up you’d like people to know about?
How can people book your services?
We have had an incredible wave of support and are filling up our schedule with pop-up portrait events. Partnering with local businesses, artists, and venues, we organize one or two pop-up weekends every month. Our booking is live on Instagram and we can be reached there @wanderingwetplates
What do you love about Denver?
We love Denver for its little big-city vibe. Although it is going through some changes, I do see so many locals working hard to hold down the OG southwest vibe! I’m old school so for me it’s summer nights at Lakeside, dinner at Steuben’s, farmers markets on south Peal Street, and First Friday Art walks on Sante Fe. Big shoutout to everyone who has hosted our pop-ups: Ritualcravt, Birdseed Collective/ Globeville Rec Center, Blue Silo Studios, and those who are reaching out to offer space to us. We could not do this without all your support!
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