Eric “Dave” Wilson has learned to look at the world backwards ... and upside down. Wilson, a 2002 Geneseo graduate, owns Victorian Photography Studio, in Gettysburg, Pa.
Eric “Dave” Wilson has learned to look at the world backwards ... and upside down.
Wilson, a 2002 Geneseo graduate, owns Victorian Photography Studio, in Gettysburg, Pa.
He uses the same techniques as photographers from the mid-1800s at his studio, which caters to tourists and Civil War reenactors alike.
Wilson specializes in a photography process known as wet plate collodion, a form of photo development that rose to popularity during the American Civil War.
“I think some of (the tourists) walk in thinking it will be one of those cheesy boardwalk experiences,” he said. “But it’s a genuine Victorian-era parlor experience.”
The store has a number of period-appropriate costumes and props, and Wilson works with each customer to make sure the photo looks period appropriate.
“How they would stand or sit, or even how they crossed their legs made a difference,” said Wilson.
To make his task more challenging, everything he does must be mirrored.
“The view through the camera is upside down and backwards,” he noted.
When a photo is developed, the image is a reverse.
“I have engaged couples who want to do save-the-date photos. The date has to be printed backwards to work,” he said.
For those pictures, Wilson requests the date in advance to give him time to create a sign.
“Writing at a slant the opposite way is the most difficult part,” he said.
As a result of the reverse images, photos from the Civil War era often show soliders wearing their equipment on the “wrong” side.
“To counter that, some would put their gear on the opposite side, but you could always tell because the letters on their belt would still be backwards,” he said.
Wilson has been a passionate Civil War historian since childhood.
“We took a first-grade field trip to the Rock Island Arsenal and they showed us a bronze cannon that had been used in the Civil War, only I misheard and thought they said the cannon was used in the ‘Silver War.’ I couldn’t figure out why a bronze cannon would be in a Silver War. I went home to look it up and haven’t stopped researching the Civil War since,” he said.
In 1997, Wilson made his first foray into Civil War reenacting joining the 8th Kansas at their annual encampment outside the Geneseo Historical Museum during the Victorian Walk (now known as the Christmas Walk).
During a recent visit to Geneseo, Wilson returned to the Abraham Lincoln statue near the museum. Though weather conditions didn’t allow him to take a wet plate collodion photo of the bust, he said it was still nice to return to the site where his reenacting days started.
Wilson’s wife, Ahna, is a fellow history enthusiast, and the pair were married at St. Peter’s Church in rural Geneseo wearing Civil War attire.
The couple first relocated to Maryland before Ahna, who works for the National Parks Service, accepted a job as site supervisor at the Dwight D. Eisenhower National Historic Site, in Gettysburg.
Because of her job, the couple and their two daughters are able to live in the historic Culp Farm home, located on the Gettysburg battlefield.
“The house was used as a field hospital after the battle,” said Wilson. “Being able to live on the battlefield is everything I ever wanted when I was young.”
Though the family lived in Gettysburg, Wilson continued to commute to his job in Maryland.
“It was a hour trip, and I was looking for new work,” he explained.
As a reenactor, Wilson had been a customer “for years” at Victorian Photography Studio.
Then-owner Del Hilbert was nearing retirement age, and the pair worked out a deal.
“I essentially bought myself a job,” joked Wilson, who spent months working with Hilbert in an apprenticeship to learn the photography process.
“Daguerreotype is the first accepted form of photography,” explained Wilson. “The process was more involved and dangerous than wet plate collodion.”
Among other things, developing a daguerreotype involves boiling mercury and fuming the mist onto a photography plate, he said. Wet plate collodion development doesn’t have that risk.
With the wet plate collodion process, photographs need to be developed while the plate is still wet — a requirement that led to portable darkrooms.
The ambrotype version of wet plate collodion is made on glass, which allowed photographers to make reproductions, and, as a result, the photos could be widely reproduced in newspapers of the era.
An appointment at the studio takes approximately an hour.
“Most of that time is spent getting dressed,” he said. The photography itself “is a 10-minute process.”
Customers must sit still for “three or four minutes” and focus on the camera.
Immediately after, the photo must be developed.
When reenactors come to the studio, Wilson said they can be particular about the look they want to achieve.
“It’s rarely the first time they’ve done a wet plate collodion photo,” he said. “Often they’ve purchased a new item or they’re trying to re-create a look they’ve seen in a historical photo.”
While some strive for absolute authenticity, other customers don’t care as much about “looking the part.”
“I’ll have some who want to wear sunglasses or point guns directly at the camera Wild West style. They’re the customer, they can do whatever they want. The authenticity of the image doesn’t reflect on the quality of the photo,” he said.
Wilson himself has been known to take “goofy” photos of modern items, such as vacuums or rubber chickens.
During the tourist season at Gettysburg — June through September — Wilson said his business is extremely busy. “We’re open seven days a week and usually have to turn away customers.”
It’s quieter in the winter months which gives Wilson time to experiment and learn.
“The photographers of the time were artists. They weren’t just doing portraits, they were doing trick photos and experimenting,” he said.
The slower months also allow Wilson to shoot Civil War reenactments outside the studio.
“In the field, you don’t have the constant, unchanging conditions that you do in the studio,” he said.
Lighting, outside temperature and even the temperature of the chemicals needed to develop the photos all can affect the final result.
All were issues the original Civil War photographers, including most famously Mathew Brady, had to deal with.
Though Brady is best known because he was the one in charge, Wilson said photos done by his employees, including Timothy O’Sullivan, were often better.
“Much of the work is accredited to Brady, because he was the boss,” said Wilson.
Brady and his employees were the first real “combat photographers” working to capture images on the battlefields of the Civil War.
“When you study photos from that era, they’re such sharp images,” said Wilson, a fact he attributes to the lenses used.
“They’re special Petzval lenses, and they just don’t make them anymore,” he said. As a result, photographers like Wilson utilize original lenses from the 1850-1890 period.
The final photos will last for centuries.
“Plates that are 150 years old look like they were shot yesterday. The plates aren’t that sensitive to light, so they will last into eternity,” he said.
“Customers ask how long their pictures will last, and I say ‘Long enough to confuse your descendants,’” joked Wilson.