Photography has become such an…ephemeral…art.
It’s all done digitally, from the capturing of the image to the editing to even the way we enjoy it, mostly on screens, in brief pauses before our attention skips to the next piece. A photograph can seem a little unreal, maybe hard to fully appreciate, when it exists as merely a collection of pixels.
That’s why I love tintypes – because they’re tangible and durable in a world where things aren’t built to last. Take a quick trip through any antique store and you will more than likely see a tintype for sale that’s at least a hundred years old. Tintype photography is the most archival form of photography known to mankind and, if done correctly, that image, solid in your hand, will exist for generations.
Tintype, for me, is a particularly fulfilling medium in which to work. While I often have to sit in front of a computer and edit digital images, I’ve never loved doing it. What I love is being in the field, taking the photograph itself. Tintype photography is the ultimate form of that.
It’s also a heck of a challenge. Large format wet plate photography is vastly different from taking photos with a phone or digital camera. Each individual photograph is painstakingly composed and shot. There’s no room for error. You either get the shot or you don't.
Tintype is called wet-plate photography because the photographer has around 15 minutes to expose and process the plate before the plate dries out. It uses a chemical process to produce
a direct positive image of silver on a black coated piece of aluminum. The wet-plate collodion process is sensitive only to blue light, which makes warm colors appear dark and cool colors uniformly light.
I’ve never considered myself a technical person, but this process demands exacting attention every step of the way. The chemicals need to be precisely mixed down to the gram. Focusing has to be tack sharp and exposure needs to be spot on. The chemicals need to be administered just right and at the right temperature. I could go on down the list, but you get the picture.
When you get it right, it’s magical. Watching an image slowly appear on the plate out of seeming nothingness never gets old to me. In the end, you’re left with a photograph you can actually hold...and with no computer needed.
And not just any photograph. Every tintype is unique.
Tintypes are inherently striking images that have their own distinct look. From beginning to end, every chemical step is hand-poured, created from the same formulas that have been used since tintype’s invention in the 1850s. This gives each and every plate a unique chemical signature making each image one-of-a-kind. Due to the variations in pouring and chemicals, no two plates are ever the same.