It’s all about capturing the truth — even if that truth isn’t what you expected it to be.
That’s how Daniel Leocadi explained the purpose of The Collodionist, a wet plate portrait studio and gallery that recently opened at 1 Church St. in Lambertville.
“You’re not really able to alter the photograph like you would a digital photograph, so it is the truth,” Leocadi explained. “And it has a surreal aesthetic … because the process uses ultraviolet light rather than regular light, and that’s something you can’t really see with the naked eye. So, when you have your portrait done, you see yourself in a different light, so to speak. You know it’s you, but you look different.”
Visitors to Leocadi’s studio receive a portrait of themselves, a process that Leocadi said takes no more than 30 minutes if he’s “really hustling.”
Leocadi, who has been producing wet plate portraits for nine years and counting, pairs a wooden camera dating back to 1901 with an alchemic process to produce portraits on either metal or glass plates.
“Once I’ve framed and set up the shot, I have to pour the chemicals and sensitize them in a silver bath before it’s photographic material, and then I can take the portrait,” Leocadi said. “The portrait, when I actually take it, is like a second long because I’m using powerful strobe lights to compensate for the light.”
Visitors of the shop can watch Leocadi as he develops their portraits, which range in price from $125 to $325, in his dark room under the red lights.
“It’s really unique and … I really enjoy sharing this process with the customer,” Leocadi said.
The photographer said that he follows the same portrait-making recipes that have existed since the mid-1800s, meaning that the portraits have the same quality of longevity as those of that era.
“We have every reason to believe that because I’m using the same technology, the portraits I make today are going to be lasting 150 to 200 years,” Leocadi said. “I ask my clients to write their names on the back of the portraits so that when they’re found 100 years from now, people are going to know who they were.”
Beyond serving as a portrait studio, The Collodionist also serves as an alternative photography gallery, showcasing a variety of archival prints for sale.
Prior to purchasing the space in December 2020 and opening it roughly one month ago, Leocadi worked out of a barn in Hamilton. He decided to open The Collodionist in his desire to share his artistic process with others in an environment where they could imagine “they stepped back in time.”
“I wanted get out into the community more and get known by exposing myself in a street setting, versus working out of a barn and relying on social media and those kinds of things for people to find me,” Leocadi said. “Because it’s not something people are looking for, but once they see it, they want it.
“Last week some guy was driving down the street, saw the shop, and he literally pulled the car over, jumped in, and immediately wanted a portrait,” he added.
Leocadi opened his studio in a space that formerly served as the home of a wet plate photographer, John C. Tibbles, from the 1860s to the 1880s. But beyond that piece of history, he was certain that Lambertville in particular was the perfect spot for a business he sought to use to cultivate connections with others.
“Lambertville is an amazing city,” Leocadi said. “It’s got tons of great history, and we get visitors from all over the world. It really feels like the perfect setting to offer this kind of experience for locals but also for the businesses that come on the weekends.”
Leocadi has thus far been warmly received by the Lambertville community — and from notable individuals stretching beyond it.
“I’m going to do a shoot with one of these people who’s very high profile now. He won an Oscar recently,” Leocadi said. “But I won’t say any more than that!”
However, Leocadi did acknowledge that some customers have at times been shocked or disappointed by the “truth” that is revealed through his portraits.
“I’ve taken portraits of people and they haven’t liked them, because they said, ‘That’s not me, what have you done?’” Leocadi said. “There was a guy who came in, he had a lot of freckles. I took a wet plate of him and he never realized just how many freckles he had on his face, and he actually went to check for melanoma. And it’s good that he did!”
Despite his inability to guarantee the approval of his customers, the photographer is committed to making his mark within the Lambertville community. Leocadi is currently producing a series of portraits of Lambertville business owners and their businesses that he is seeking to display in an exhibition by summer’s end to yield profits he can donate to the city’s historical society.
Leocadi was inspired to become a wet plate portrait photographer because he “fell in love” with the history behind him. But, in discussing this next venture, he recognized that he will be immortalizing the history of in front of him.
“The plates will represent this collective moment in time that as business owners we all shared at the tail-end of the pandemic,” Leocadi explained. “We’re custodians of these wonderful old properties in Lambertville and are destined to become part of Lambertville’s history.”
The Collodionist is open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Both walk-ins and appointments are accepted.
Learn more about The Collodionist by visiting its website or Instagram page.
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Caroline Fassett may be reached at [email protected].