Colorado photographer Don Jones captured cowboys, cowgirls and Chief Sitting Bull’s great-grandson through the archaic process of wet plate photography.
After the civil war, the country’s north-south orientation gave way to a new orientation: Western migration. Explorers, miners and settlers went west in waves – some of them carrying cameras with the idea of documenting the frontier, from landscapes to mining claims. Among the first of these photographers in the American West were Timothy H. O’Sullivan and Carleton Watkins, both of whom had to struggle with the wet plate negative process and the bulky equipment that came with it. Not only was the process cumbersome and difficult to control, but the use of toxic chemicals made it dangerous. Well over a century later, Colorado photographer Don Jones is resurrecting the archaic process to create stunning contemporary images with a striking vintage character.
A graduate of the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California, Jones assisted the winner vanity lounge photographer Annie Leibovitz in 1995 and 1996 while photographing athletes training for the Games in Atlanta for the book Olympic portraits. After working on large-scale projects using state-of-the-art equipment, Jones found himself drawn back to the early days of photography. Now immersed in the highly specialized wet plate photographic process of the 19th century, Jones uses an 8 x 10 Deardorff camera and special lenses made in the late 1800s.
Don Anderson, 94-year-old Nation’s Elder
Creating the wet plate portraits requires the photographic material to be coated, sensitized, exposed and developed within approximately 15 minutes. His mobile platform allows him to travel to his subjects – which have included cowboys, cowgirls, and Sitting Bull Chief Ernie LaPointe’s great-grandson – and capture them in authentic environments.
Cowboys and Indians: After success as a commercial photographer, why make the jump to the wet plate?
Don Jones: I was classically trained as a commercial photographer, not fine art. Art photography comes from the heart. In my career, I’ve photographed governors, senators, world-class athletes, and even actors, but this is the hardest thing I’ve done in my career. My hope is that this work will eventually hang in museums, and I plan to publish several books using this process.
THIS : Tell us about the Deardorff camera.
Jones: I was introduced to the Deardorff camera over 30 years ago by a fellow photographer who was already deeply involved in the process. I had never seen or heard of the Deardorff until then and was lucky enough to find a used studio camera here in Colorado Springs. I sold it and bought a more mobile one, much easier to use in the field: a 1963 Deardorff V8 field camera 8 x 10, with a Dallmeyer 2A 350mm lens, f4.5 Petzval produced in London in 1890. The three lenses I use were made around 1890. The company was founded a hundred years ago by Laban L. Deardorff. It really is an iconic brand – I compare it to the Steinway.
You must be a virtual chemist to understand this process. The instructor I took lessons with and revered so much, Quinn Jacobson, wrote a book called Chemical pictures, which is literally a series of images that are mixed together in a particular chemical way and react to light. Chemicals, including potassium cyanide, are difficult to use. I had to be registered with the DEA to be able to buy them.
John Vance on his ranch
THIS : How does this process compare to digital?
Jones: Two very different processes. With the wet plate you can get great controlled images. But perhaps the biggest benefit is that in the age of digital photography, it’s a craft – a craft the photographer appreciates and a craft the subjects appreciate. It turns a portrait into something much bigger: a portrait that has a story and reinvents the past. It’s not point and click; you need to plan the shot well before you take the picture.
THIS : There’s an exciting story about your picture of Ernie LaPointe. …
Jones: Generally speaking, I want the story of each subject to be told through these portraits. Each photograph is a very deliberate and slow process, and each image I create takes time. You learn that you only have one or two opportunities to capture their nuance and expression.
Photographing Ernie LaPointe was a highlight of my career. He is the great-grandson of the famous Lakota Chief Sitting Bull, which was recently proven by DNA testing. It was headline news when the ScienceAdvances announced in late October that scientists had traced family lines from ancient DNA youTo verify that Ernie, who is now 73, is most likely Sitting Bull’s great-grandson and closest living descendant.
Ernie LaPointe, Sitting Bullit’s Great grandson
Sitting Bull was, of course, the great leader and healer who united the Sioux tribes of the Great Plains in the late 19th century and led a resistance against the settlers. After he was killed by Native American police in 1890, an army doctor at Fort Yates in North Dakota took a lock of hair and woolen leggings from Sitting Bull. It was apparently from there that they were able to trace the DNA. This evidence should help Ernie repatriate Sitting Bull’s remains from his current burial site in Mobridge, South Dakota, to a location he believes held more cultural significance to his great-grandfather.
THIS : Was the importance of his lineage palpable?
Jones: As Ernie and I walked to set, I couldn’t help but think about the story I was about to write with my camera and darkroom. He sat perfectly still, not saying a word, looking like a warrior. After developing the authentic wet plate collodion portrait, I realized how similar Ernie’s image was to those made of Sitting Bull in the 19th century.
Don Jones’ work will be on display from March 10 to April 10 at the Broadmoor Galleries at the Broadmoor Resort in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Visit him online at donjonesphotography.com.
Excerpt from our February/March 2022 issue
Photography: (All images) courtesy of Don Jones