WHAT IS A TINTYPE?
The year was 1851 and the first photographers were traveling chemists. They roamed town to town...
...door to door, using teams of horses to pull mobile darkroom wagons - photographic vans. These itinerant shutterbugs did more than simply make portraits, they were creating heirlooms forged in silver by sunlight that would be passed down through the generations - historical artifacts so durable they survive perfectly to this day.
Tintypes are made by pouring a silver solution upon sheets of black metal and exposing them to light. Being handmade, and utilizing antique equipment often built more than a century ago, tintype photography incorporates certain imperfections that leave an alluring, charming characteristic which heightens their remarkable nature. They have an ageless, immutable quality that transcends time. The psychology of viewing a tintype is undeniably different from a modern photograph and can't quite be expressed in words; it truly must be seen to be experienced.
Long after your paper photographs have yellowed or torn, and your selfies have evaporated into the cloud, your tintype will remain resolute and unfaded. The horse-drawn wagons are long gone, but the chemistry remains the same. By using resurrected photographic techniques mastered and forgotten more than 150 years ago, we generate the same enduring civil-war era photographs.
THE TECHNICAL DETAILS - WAY TO MANY
Wet Plate Collodion was invented in 1851 by Frederick Scott Archer. The reason it is called "wet plate" photography is because the process must be completed, start to finish, before the chemistry has a chance to dry. Glass or metal plates are first coated in collodion, a syrupy solution of nitrocellulose dissolved in ether and alcohol. Originally used in the medical field to close small wounds and adhere bandages, collodion - coined from the Greek kollodis (gluey) - becomes sticky as the ether and alcohol evaporate. F.S. Archer was the first to figure out that salted collodion could be used instead of albumen (dried egg whites) as a far superior binding agent to absorb and sensitize silver nitrate, photography's primary light-sensitive agent. This is the moment that photography became prominent in the world for the first time.
After the collodion is poured upon the plate, it is only a few seconds until it becomes sticky to the touch. The plate is then smoothly and evenly dunked into a tank of silver nitrate, the aforementioned sensitizing agent. Anything less than smooth and even results in artifacting - which can look intriguing on its' own - one of many inevitable accidents, some happy, that are baked into the process. Dunking allows silver nitrate to be absorbed into and react with iodides salted into the collodion. Silver iodide is the result and poof, the plate becomes sensitive to the blue side of the light spectrum (not red - which is why the darkroom can be bathed in red light and not ruin the photograph).
In the safety of pure red light, the plate is moved from the silver nitrate solution into a light-tight holder to be transferred into the camera. The photographer now has only until the plate dries to complete the photographic process, depending on the weather between 5 and 15 minutes. The clock is ticking.
The cameras used for tintypes are called "view cameras". You may have seen old images of photographers hunched over a large box with a black cloth covering their head... that is a view camera, essentially a hollow box with a small lens up front (you don't even need a lens, just a tiny hole... this would be called a pinhole camera). The image is projected inside the camera upside down and backwards., which is why tintypes develop in reverse. Tintype subjects will see themselves as if looking in a mirror.
The sensitivity of a sensitized plate is very low; the equivalent of ISO 1, give or take a bit. As such. exposure times are very long compared to a modern camera and can range from 1 second up to several minutes. It is very hard to hold a genuine smile for a 10 second exposure, which is why you will rarely ever see anyone smile in a wet plate from the past. Today we have powerful strobes that negate long exposures times in studio settings, but environmental portraits do not have this luxury. Subjects will need to remain perfectly still for a minimum of a few seconds.
After the plate has been exposed in the camera it is taken back inside the safety of the darkroom where the latent image is developed. Developer is poured over the plate and within a few seconds a negative image appears. The warmer the weather the faster the plate will process.
The next step is the one area where modern tintype techniques often diverge from the traditional 1851 technique: I don't use cyanide in my fixer - I choose to use a less toxic mix of ammonium thiosulfate chemistry that won't kill me unless I drown in a barrel of it. Fixer stabilizes the plate by removing all the unexposed silver halide leaving behind the reduced metallic silver that makes up the visible image. The remaining photo is technically still a negative, but because it is layered upon black it appears as a positive.
The plate then enters into a water bath for at least a half hour - If I had used potasium cyanide as my fixer the water bath would not be so lengthy - from there it is thoroughly dried and then varnished with the sap from a sandarac tree and lavender oil. This is an all natural protective coating which will help the tintype last for centuries.
Some of the magic of a tintype resides in its' absolute uniqueness; Though we make a digital scan for additional display purposes, each tintype is absolutely one-of-a-kind and will last for centuries to come.
A UNIQUE COLLABORATION
As an artist I view portraiture as a collaborative process. It is a unique opportunity for two people to come together and make one remarkable creation. It is not me taking a portrait of you, but rather making a portrait with you. I want to hear your thoughts, ideas and expectations, if you have them... if not, that is OK too. I am happy to guide you through the process.