A few nights ago, my wife, Alane, were watching Project Runway (yes, I’m a renaissance man interested in all things creative!). During his critique of the finalists, judge Michael Kors mentioned one contestant who had finally learned to edit his designs. Kors said with approval, “He slaps his own hand!”

I love that quote. It’s very schizophrenic but it’s me. Speaking of slapping my own hand, I did that with the image below – not in the creation of it, but for an incident that occurred during its making. It’s the only time I’ve been turned in for a 911 violation.

Chemical Damage

© Todd Vinson

The scene is of riverboat traffic on the Guyandotte River, near Charleston, West Virginia.

A local deputy stopped by to see what I was up to. I was working out of a portable darkroom in the bed of my truck (same set up shown in “What is Wet Plate Collodion” tab).

I yelled from the shroud and asked him to wait until I finished developing the plate. (That’s probably when those chemical streaks happened…) My nephew, Joshua, was with me and he occupied the deputy until I finished.

I brought out the plate in a tray of water, showed the image, and explained the process. Honestly, I thought he was just curious to see what I was doing. The curious come up from time to time.

I gave the deputy a business card (highly recommended if you do strange-looking alternative processes in the field!). He wasn’t as interested in the image or process as he was in my camera being pointed toward the chemical plant across the river. He informed me that since 911, it was now illegal to photograph industrial areas.

I was polite and understood how this might look to him. The deputy saw a truck with out-of-state tags parked at the edge of a riverbank, a man at the tailgate, his upper torso inside a huge black box, and the rest of him covered by a large mysterious shroud. I’m sure the small chemistry lab on the tailgate and the overwhelming smell of ether didn’t help.

I showed him the image on the ground glass in the back of the camera – that it was upside down and backwards. I explained that the lens was made in the mid 1800s, had no zoom, and didn’t even use a shutter (I use the lens cap). So far so good.

Things went south when I asked how I could be this much trouble for one 5×7 plate of the plant across the river using mid-1800s technology, when I could drive to the plant, park outside the front gate, and with an off-the-shelf 300mm zoom lens and a cheap digital SLR, capture a memory card’s worth of close-up detailed images in less time and effort it took to do this one collodion plate here. And I would be in trouble for exactly the same thing.

I highly recommend against saying that. I’m pretty sure I put the idea in his head that I was planning that too (which I wasn’t). I volunteered to pack up and leave, but he took my driver’s licence and business card. He made me promise to wait by my truck until he came back. He went to the station and turned me in to the Coast Guard, who I was told had jurisdiction for 911 violations of this nature.

So Josh and I waited. This is where my nephew found humor in the situation. First, he was excited, having never seen a cop in action up close before. Second, he thought it was funny that I was possibly in serious trouble, but had to promise to wait while he drove away to turn me in. The deputy literally said, “I expect you to be here when I get back.”

He eventually returned, gave back my license, and said I’d be hearing from 911 authorities. It’s been a few years, and the call never came. Regarding the legality of the situation, what he said was not exactly true.

The subject was not completely off-limits. It depends whether I was on private or public lands, and I honestly don’t know the answer to that. It also depends on the purpose of the photography. Regardless, I slapped my own hand to teach myself a lesson.

Apparently I didn’t slap my own hand hard enough. Josh and I drove to the top of a mall parking garage for more collodion work, and got chased away from there too. The security guard said, “It doesn’t matter if you’re up to something or not. You look like you are, so you need to leave.”

Maybe I just have that look…