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Slow time photographs in Silver Portraits

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Step back into early photography and discover images outside time in the exquisite exhibition Silver Portraits at Hove Museum.

It’s a unique look, and often has imperfections from the old lens and from tiny variations in the chemistry and technique. I think most people find imperfection much more interesting than perfection”. Sean Hawkey 2016


In the middle of the perfection and speed of the digital age it is fascinating to talk about the imperfection and slowness of old equipment and chemical reactions. It brings us back to the passage of time and shows us the potential and the charm of analogue photographic methods.

Sean Hawkey is a photojournalist who normally uses digital equipment but over the last three years he has experimented with a technique that uses silver in its process. The exhibition Silver Portraits at Hove Museum shows the fascinating results of his adventures into this technique.

The wetplate collodian method was invented in 1851 and already obsolete by the 1870s. This technique involves coating a metal, or glass, plate with silver nitrate, therby creating a light sensitive surface. The plate is exposed to light by the simple removal of the lens cap and the image of the subject is captured on the plate. There is no negative and the image is therefore reversed, as in a mirror.

In using this very special technique for his project Hawkey is producing photographs as a craft and is keeping himself distant from the use of the computer and any digital technology. There are no Photoshop effects or Instagram filters.


In 2014 Hawkey traveled to Peru to take photographs of the Sotrami silver and gold miners as part of the Fairtrade Foundation Campaign, I Do, which encourages couples to buy Fairtrade silver and gold wedding rings. He learned how to use collodion specifically for this project and trained in his home town, Brighton, through taking portraits of local people. He shoots contemporary images with a taste of the past. His portraits capture our imagination around the stories hidden behind the faces.

From the series “local faces” in Silver Portrait exhibition:


“[…] And because the chemicals are sensitive only to warm light and UV – not the light spectrum we see with our eyes – the picture is never the same as what we see. It is always slightly surprising. So, before you say there’s an app for it, these images really can’t be made with an app”. Sean Hawkey, 2016 

Hawkey uses a field view camera made of wooden bellows and the lens is one of the early British lenses from 1872, that presents some imperfections and aberrations. These defects make the final images unique as they give them a visual aesthetic that is not possible to reproduce with any sort of digital technology.


The use of old equipment is certainly an amazing way to obtain unique and captivating images. I can imagine the amazement of the Peruvian miners when they first saw Hawkey arriving with his heavy antique camera and lights. He also had to bring a mobile darkroom and laboratory as the wet plates have to be developed straight away before they dry. In Britain the development process has to be done within 10 minutes of taking the pictures but in the middle of the Andes Hawkey only had 90 seconds due to the temperature. A real challenge!

The silver used for the Peruvian portraits was the silver nitrate from Sotrami’s mines laboratory. Hawkey incorporated into his project not just the mine workers’ faces and stories, but also the product of their labors.

Each image in this series has a soul and deep eyes that seem to communicate the strength of these men who dig the earth for as little as one dollar a day, risking their lives in what is considered the world’s most dangerous industries. The miners prematurely-aged faces give us the sense of the quality of their lives. The exposure time of about 10-15 seconds heightens the intensity of their look.

“A ten second exposure records as much of a person as a ten second video. Although it’s a still, I think you can see that more is captured in the image. The results are typically soulful, intense, revealing portraits”. Sean Hawkey, 2016

The miners are not the only subjects in this series. One night in Peru some policemen knocked on Hawkey’s door – not for security issues as he believed, but to request a portraits of themselves!

From the series of portraits taken in Peru:


The latest work Hawkey has undertaken using the wet plate technique was a series of portraits of dancers, singers and musicians at the Royal Opera House in London. These portraits formed the RHO annual advertising campaign in 2016. The images evoke a deep exploration of the artists and show the soul and the passion for their creative work.

Images from the Royal Opera House series in Silver Portrait exhibition:


The three series of portraits “Local Faces”, “Peruvian Miners” and “Royal Opera House Performers and Staff” are exhibited in Hove Museum until the 15th of November 2016. Each one with its intensity, spirituality and drama.

Discover more about Sean Hawkey photographer in his website

Take a look at the Silver Portrait image gallery on our website

Silver portraits
Hove Museum, 8 September – 15 November 2016
Opening times:
Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday: 10am-5pm
Sunday: 2-5pm, Closed Wednesdays (except Bank Holidays)

Martina Bellotto, Hove Museum Assistant