Hold still for 15 seconds: Rimouski photographer takes portraits using nearly 100-year-old camera

Earlier this year, Yves Lavoie bought a camera from 1932 that uses the collodion process, a photography method invented in the 1850s that involves capturing an image directly on an aluminum plate that’s treated with a specific cocktail of chemicals.

Yves Lavoie says the result is more deliberate, and personal, than cell phone snaps

As a pandemic hobby, Rimouski photographer Yves Lavoie learned how to take photographs using the 170-year-old collodion method. (Sébastien Ross/Radio-Canada)

A photographer in Quebec's Lower Saint-Lawrence region is taking people back in time with the help of a nearly century-old camera.

Earlier this year, Yves Lavoie bought a camera from 1932 that uses the collodion process, a photography method invented in the 1850s that involves capturing an image directly on an aluminum plate that's treated with a specific cocktail of chemicals. 

Subjects have to stay completely still for about 15 seconds, or risk ruining their striking black-and-white portrait. 

Lavoie said what started as a pandemic hobby at his home in Saint-Anaclet-de-Lessard, near Rimouski, Que., has turned into so much more as he learns about the photography method and develops his skills. 

"I thought to myself, 'well I'm home, I'm with my family, we're fine, we're stable. I'll start this, let's go,'" he said. 

Some of the photos Yves Lavoie has taken with his hundred-year-old camera. (Sébastien Ross/Radio-Canada)

Much like when the technique was originally used, Lavoie's photographs could last for more than 100 years, and they're one of a kind. 

"It is a handmade image," Lavoie said. "I drag my little chemist's kit with me and literally pour the film onto a foil plate for each photo."

Lavoie said he's using 19th-century recipes to mix the chemicals he uses to coat the aluminum and produce the photos. 

"There is even a little smell of ether," he said. 

Lavoie's camera is about 30 cm long by 30 cm high and was made in 1932. (Submitted by Yves Lavoie)

He says the composition of these photos is simpler, often with plain backgrounds and stern poses because subjects aren't able to move.

"What is in focus in the image is so thin, so you get maybe the pupil and some of the lips and that's it. The rest is thrown out of focus," he said. 

He calls the experience a "link to the past." 

"Every time I get to shoot someone I'm growing more fond of the process just for the opportunity to bring this back into people's lives," he said. 

The collodion method Yves Lavoie uses dates back to the 19th century. (Sébastien Ross/Radio-Canada)

When the technology was first developed, most people only had the time and money to take a single photo in their lifetime or at special occasions, such as weddings and funerals. 

Lavoie explained that with the world now moving so fast, people are used to snapping photos in quick succession and processing them quickly. He says that taking the time to be deliberate and enjoy the process of creating a single image makes it more personal. 

"It seems small, but I feel that it's something we need right now," Lavoie said. 

The entire process — from setting up the shot, directing subjects to capturing the image itself — can take about 20 minutes for a single photo.

Yves Lavoie is a Rimouski photographer who spent his pandemic free time learning how to use a nearly century-old camera. With it, he takes photos that look like they could have been of your great-grandparents. He joins guest host Kim Garritty to talk about his passion. 13:04

Lavoie, who is from the Eastern Townships, got into photography while he was pursuing a graduate degree in political science in Ottawa. 

He said that while he started wanting to capture raw moments and be more of a fly on the wall, using the collodion method this last year has helped him be more intentional.

He's now become one of just a few hundred photographers in North America who use the technology. 

Lavoie works remotely for a marketing company in Montreal, but he says he's glad to feel like he's building something in his free time in the Lower Saint-Lawrence, where he's lived since 2019.

He said he hopes to continue working on his studio and adding to the experience for visitors so it's a must-do attraction in the area.

With files from Quebec AM and Sophie Martin


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