As It Happens

The story behind these authentic 1800s-style pictures of the Little Women cast

Wilson Webb captured the cast portraits using the collodion process, also known as tin type or wet photography.

Wilson Webb captured the cast portraits using the collodion process, a.k.a. tin type or wet plate photography

Wilson Webb captured these historically accurate portraits of Saoirse Ronan as Jo and Florence Pugh as Amy in Little Women using a process developed in the 1850s. (Wilson Webb/Columbia Pictures)
Listen6:42

Read Story Transcript

The on-set photographer for Greta Gerwig's Little Women says if the movie was going to be historically accurate, he wanted his images to be historically accurate too. 

"As soon as I talked to Greta and she offered me the job I just knew that this was a perfect way to use photography in the period of the film," Wilson Webb told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Gerwig's coming-of-age film is based on the 1868 novel of the same name by Louisa May Alcott. So Webb used a complex 1860s technique to capture his portraits of the cast in their on-set costumes and makeup.

The result is a stunning series of black and white images that look like they belong in a history book.

Laura Dern as Mary March. (Wilson Webb/Columbia Pictures)

Webb captured the images using a technique called the collodion process — also known as tin type or wet plate photography.

That means the photo has to be taken while a tin or a plate is wet with light-sensitive chemicals, then exposed quickly before the plate dries.

"It's quite a process. It involves a lot of steps. It involves some dangerous chemicals," Webb said. "There are many, many steps that if they're not followed can result in getting no images whatsoever."

This is the camera and lens Webb used. (Submitted by Wilson Webb )

Unfortunately, working cameras from the 1800s are hard to come by, so Webb had to use a modern one.

However, he rigged it up to an authentic 130-year-old Dallmeyer lens made of brass, which he said "weighed four times as much as the camera body."

Emma Watson as Meg March and James Norton as John Brooke. (Wilson Webb/Columbia Pictures)

Then there's the light. 

"There's 25,000 Watt-seconds of flash," he said. "So when that goes off, the person sitting in front of the camera can feel a wave of heat and they can also smell the ozone that's created when the picture's taken."

Webb used a detailed and painstaking process to develop his wet plate photos. (Kimberly Scarsella)

In the photos, the cast members look straight at the camera, posing solemnly in the custom of the time.

"[The] most important and biggest reason was at the time, photography was fairly new and it was very serious. And to have a photo taken of yourself would cost a considerable amount of money," Webb said.

"And what photography did at the very beginning was they were emulating portraits that were painted. So you also didn't see a lot of classic portraits where people were smiling."

Eliza Scanlen as Beth March. (Wilson Webb/Columbia Pictures)

Another reason, he said, is because people would have to sit for sometimes hours to have their portrait taken. That's because back then, he says, photographers relied on natural light.

"Because we couldn't have that set up in an open studio where we're doing other things, I had to use a whole lot of flashes, and I had to take the UV protective cover off of each bulb and flash them all at once," he said.

"So they only had to sit for maybe about 30 seconds without moving."

Ronan poses for her 1800s-style portrait. (Kimberly Scarsella)

Webb says he's very pleased with how the images turned out.

"Although if I was trying to pass as a photographer in the 1860s, I would probably be laughed out of the studio. And the reason being is all the things that make them interesting now — the textures and weird shading and bending that you can kind of see in the portraits — are interesting to us now because we're so desensitized because of digital crisp, sharp photos," he said.

"But back in the day, those are attributes that would have been seen as a mistake and would not have been presentable whatsoever."


Written by Sheena Goodyear and Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. 

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.