California man heads across country to ‘document America’ and save analog photography

Posted Aug. 18, 2013, at 1:17 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 18, 2013, at 8:42 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Anton Orlov rolled into Portland on Friday in a snubnose 1978 school bus, halfway through his cross-country tour designed to spread the word about analog photography — which he said is fading from memory

Pulling the bus — equipped with a fully-outfitted mobile darkroom — into the dirt lot behind the Portland Industrial Complex, Orlov paused and sighed.

“Perfect,” he said, eyeing the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad with Portland Harbor in the background.

Orlov jumped out to find his shot — which exact photo would capture the essence of Portland.

Leaving San Diego on June 9 and heading across the country, Orlov said, “I’m on a mission to document America in wet plate, tintype and ambrotype.”

In an age of iPhone pictures and digital cameras, “It pains me to think of so many cameras and lenses just rotting away in basements,” he said.

Taking tintype portraits and teaching workshops along the way to earn gas money, Orlov spent Friday night near South Portland’s Bug Light. He wasn’t sure where he’d park for the rest of the weekend, but on Sunday or Monday he planned to head to Rockport to attend a photography workshop before returning to Portland at the beginning of the week. He hopes to line up a few portraits to finance the next part of his journey.

The bus “is a catalyst” for adventures, he said. He happens upon “the craziest, most wonderful people” on the road, and documents his travels on his blog,

The bus itself appears sparsely outfitted for travel, but behind a heavy black curtain is “where the magic happens,” he said. In the fully functional darkroom, Orlov creates ambrotypes and tintypes of what he’s seen across the country.

On Saturday, he set his eye on the nearby steam engine preparing to depart and raced to the conductor to learn how long he had to take the shot. He set his 4-by-5 view camera on a tripod and peered through the lens.

Then, he ran back to the darkroom to prepare the black stained glass on which he would create the wet collodion photo, used primarily in the 1850s to 1880s, he said.

Dipping the glass into one chemical cocktail and then into silver nitrate, he created a light-sensitive plate, then rushed back to slip the plate into the camera, catching the steam engine just before it headed along the track.

After a final bath of chemicals back in the darkroom, Orlov prepared for “the fun part” — the revealing of the image.

Waving his fingers in a “hocus-pocus” fashion, he said, “It’s like magic. And look at that! We got it. Jesus, that looks nice.”

The black-and-white photograph of the engine, steam billowing from the smokestack, will last 200 years, Orlov said.

“There’s something physical about it. When I sell a print and see it walk away, I get a very special feeling. … I know it’s going to last.”

Dave Hoar of Windham saw the big, yellow bus Saturday morning and wandered down to investigate. The photographer explained the process as Orlov peered at the photo and marveled at its detail.

“That’s [really] cool,” Hoar said. “It’s funny how old [stuff] is great, and then they change it.”

Later, Orlov said, “That’s how it happens. People come up, and I teach them.”

Olrov said he hopes to convince people to put down their iPhones — just for a minute — “and actually pick up a film camera.” The time and cost required “actually makes you think more,” he said. “Those 500,000 or 1 million pictures people take every year [digitally] … who’s going to know your Flickr password after you’re dead?”

To reach Orlov to arrange a portrait, email