The Time-Travelling Photographer
‘Gun-cotton and ether? You must be mad, sir!’
‘I assure you, it is quite safe when handled by an expert,’ Simon Riddell replies calmly, holding the plate to the light for inspection.
His clergyman customer cannot resist peering in, despite his recent outburst.
‘Remarkable! And it won’t fade, you say?’ his voice betrays his doubt. ‘I only had to remain still for a handful of seconds.’
‘Held in silver. It will endure for as long as that metal, sir.’
The tones of the image reach from the deepest black to an iridescent white. But it is among the myriad greys that the wonderful sharpness of detail lies.
Riddell’s darkroom is housed on the flatbed of his cart. A cumbersome, vaguely threatening black-canvas contraption. But one that has allowed him to journey with his equipment, albeit slowly to the Isle of Skye.
‘It is all about light. Having enough of it. Keeping it out when it isn’t wanted, letting it in for just the right amount of time.’
The skinny, straight-backed vicar removes his spectacles and studies his lenses thoughtfully. He looks back at the behemoth of a camera, some six feet long, much of the length resembling a giant accordion.
‘Collodion, sounds like accordion. Your camera looks like an accordion, does it not?’
Riddell can only nod in agreement. He is pleased with the plate. The cleric’s face is a river delta of fine lines and every one is distinct.
‘It is a veritable time machine, Reverend,’ he insists, ‘our flesh may wither away but your ancestors shall enjoy your company for as long as this plate is cared for. More than that, you may be replicated at will by any skilled practitioner!’
For a moment, Riddell thinks he has gone too far. After all, it is this man’s business to credit only God with the power of transubstantiation. But then he relaxes as a smile redirects the channels lining his customer’s face.
‘I like that. The very idea that a man so ordinary as myself might be remembered in future centuries. That has the whiff of the modern, and after all, we live in the age born of the Great Reform Act just two decades ago. Building a world where more than just the high-born might prosper.’
Simon Riddell smiles. He is the son of humble folk. He has laboured hard as workman and apprentice. Now, the new world of photography has provided an outlet for his skill in chemistry.
‘Now forgive me, Reverend. I must be quick. All needs to be completed before it dries.’
As he works, swiftly and surely, he is thinking of how far he has come. Next week, he takes on the lease of the old bookshop on Dean Street. The sign-writer already has his instructions. He imagines standing at the door of his shop beneath the curlicued text that spells out ‘Riddell – superior collodion photographer. All welcome.’
Startled out of his reverie by a glimpse of the Sligachan Hotel’s ginger cat, he waves a careless hand at the animal, only to see its retreating tail twitch at him. Moments later, he hears a clatter of hooves and a feline squeal followed by a deafening crash. Startled, his arm knocks two bottles from the portable darkroom’s shelf. One smashes on the bench and the other falls into the silver nitrate bath.
Riddell curses. He has been remiss in cleaning his plate holders. Build-up of nitrate is dangerous, he knows. His thoughts get no further as an explosion rips through the covered carriage.
When he comes to, he lies quite still, fearful he is seriously injured. He waits for the pain. There must be burns at the very least.
‘Are you okay?’ asks a concerned female voice. Riddell opens his eyes. His eyes swim with tears but he brushes them away until he can make out a strong face, framed by black hair with a deep ruby tint. He has never seen such a hairstyle.
The woman is crouched over him. She is wearing trousers! The tightest trousers he has ever seen! He is tempted to shut his eyes until he regains his proper senses, but something about her open face prevents him from doing so.
‘I think you’ve had a fall. You’d better come with me,’ she says. He has never heard anyone talk like this but he lets her help him to his feet.
He looks around at the front of the Sligachan Hotel. His knees give way at the sight of an entirely unfamiliar curved extension topped in slate. The forecourt is much wider than he remembers and is crowded with colourful vehicles sitting on rubber-covered wheels.
The young woman proves capable and strong, supporting his weight until he recovers himself.
‘I think we’d better get you into my car,’ she suggests, pointing at a bright red carriage devoid of shafts, harness, or horse.
Riddell allows her to seat him in the interior. As she turns the ignition and the engine coughs to life, he starts so violently, he hits his head on the low roof.
‘My, you have had a shock, haven’t you?’ she says kindly as she fastens his seat-belt. Easing off the handbrake, she puts the car into reverse.
Simon Riddell shuts his eyes and tries to stop his body from shaking.
‘I don’t understand,’ he manages to mumble. ‘This is the Isle of Skye?’ he adds.
‘Of course, silly,’ the woman replies, ‘this is Skye, it’s four o’clock on Thursday the seventh of June 2021 and my name is Sonya.’
The next thing Simon remembers is waking up in an unfamiliar bed. After that, everything is astonishment. Electricity, telephones, screens, cuisine. Day after day he tries to fathom what has happened and day after day he is still with Sonya.
After they share their first kiss, he looks at her guiltily. He can never tell her the truth. If he does, she will know he is mad and have nothing more to do with him.
Three months later and he has accepted the truth. Somehow, the explosion of his photographic chemicals didn’t kill him. Instead, it tore a hole in time and propelled him through it. Utter nonsense, he knows, but here he is. Living and breathing and watching Netflix!
Sonya reaches out and snags the remote. She turns the TV off and takes him by the hand.
‘Time for bed,’ she grins. He does not resist. He loves this woman and so he must go on lying to her.
‘I want to build a camera,’ he announces the very next day, as Sonya searches irritably for her car keys. He finds them down the back of the sofa and dangles them in front of her. ‘I need to start contributing to our finances.’
‘I know you said you were a photographer but why do you have to make your own camera?’
‘Because everything’s digital these days. Almost no one uses the old methods. I want to help bring them back.’
‘Daguerreotype?’ Sonya asks, looking pleased with herself.
‘Better,’ Simon replies, ‘the wet plate collodion method.’
‘Never heard of it,’ Sonya calls, now in the hall. He hears the door slam and he is alone.
It takes two years to assemble the camera. He has repurposed everything from a coat hanger to the bellows from an enlarger. He steps back with pride to take in the scale of his accomplishment. The camera is some six feet from lens to plate.
His initial tests are promising but the solutions he acquires are inconsistent until he stumbles across a chemist who seems to be on his wavelength.
There is no going back to his leased premises on Dean Street. He wonders what sort of shop occupied the address? Shaking his head, he sets up another still life on the table and ducks beneath the black cloth. He uses the leg of a tripod to help him focus. He really must design a better tool, he thinks.
It will be tourist season soon. Easter is coming. For a moment he thinks of his last customer, on that fateful day in 1853, the thin vicar with the lined face. He has reached an arrangement with the manager of the Sligachan Hotel. He will work out of Seumas’ Bar, offering portraits to disgruntled visitors seeking refuge from the island’s unpredictable weather. He will have a gallery and a small shop display. He has had a banner made. It reads, ‘Riddell – superior collodion photographer. All welcome.’
Tonight he is going to tell Sonya the truth.