“While holding those heavy glass plates, I realised that my once beautiful, happy, sad, sorrowful memories had already become individual images, just like my youth.”

Born Qiqihar, Heilongjiang, 1989

“We have a saying in Chinese,” Yan Siwen says: “ ‘Seeing an object makes one miss its owner.’ Feelings fade after a while, but objects, if you keep them, can stay for a long time.” To preserve the remnants of a love affair, she used one of the most wayward photographic techniques available. The wet-plate collodion process, invented in 1851, requires fast work and meticulous preparation and control. After being coated with a specially aged chemical solution, a glass plate is dipped into silver nitrate to sensitise it to light, then immediately inserted in a camera and exposed by raising a shutter. If the plate is black or coated with black paint, when the developing solution is applied the negative resolves as a positive image called an ambrotype. This obviates the need for printing but also makes the picture impossible to reproduce. These qualities, together with the unpredictability of the results, made ambrotypes perfect for Yan Siwen’s purpose. “Their uncontrollable quality always excites and disappoints me,” she says. “It makes each work unique in the feelings it carries.”

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