So you have the latest and greatest in digital technology, or maybe you are dreaming of getting the new Canon or Fujifilm body, but have you ever thought about going with less technology, back to the roots of photography?
For all of the high-tech equipment I have around me every day, I’m actually more of a photo history person. We here at Beau still maintain a strong connection to traditional film and darkroom process, but this article will go back even further, toward the origins of photography and one of the early processes that was used to create images. After all, everyone should know their history.
Many say photography was invented in 1839, but the chemical processes, lenses, and the desire to fix images in nature came before that famous date in history. The first process officially announced was the Daguerreotype in France. At the same time in England, William Henry Fox Talbot was working on the process of photogenic drawing using paper negatives. More on these two at another time, unlike the present, history doesn’t always have to be chronological! For this article, I’m jumping ahead to the 1850’s and the tintype. Really a variation of the wet plate collodion process announced by Frederic Scott Archer in 1851, the tintype is a bit misnamed since it doesn’t involve tin at all. Originally called Ferrotypes because of the thin iron plates the images were produced on, tintypes became a faster, cheaper way to produce portraits for the masses. Being that the image was quite durable and lightweight, the tintype was also widely used during the civil war to take portraits of soldiers and their loved ones as they went off to war. The soldiers could easily keep a portrait of someone back home with them at all times without it being damaged or taking up a lot of space. Tintypes started losing their popularity later in the century when dry plates became more commercially available. The need to always have a darkroom nearby to sensitize and process images made the tintype less practical than the new dryplate process.
Today, tintypes are making a comeback as more and more people are learning the process. One of the first to revive the almost lost art was John Coffer. In 1978, he photographed his way across the U.S. with his horse Brownie and his darkroom wagon. There really wasn’t anyone else working with wetplates at the time and he had to learn the process on his own. He now teaches workshops at Camp Tintype on his farm in upstate New York. I was lucky enough to attend one in 2008 and it was an amazing experience. Camping on his farm, and getting up in the morning to learn a photo process from the 1850’s was like an immersion into a different time. If anyone is interested in learning to do wetplate photography, John is an amazing resource. Visit his website at www.johncoffer.com to see what Camp Tintype is all about.
The tintype is an interesting process in that once you coat the plate, you have to shoot the image and develop it all before it dries – hence the term wetplate photography. You begin with a metal plate that has a black varnish on it, coat it with an emulsion called collodion, and then dip it in a bath of silver nitrate. Meanwhile, you would have likely already set up the large format camera with the perfect shot so you can go have a quick check at the focus and composition. Back to the dark tent to take your plate out of the silver bath, load it into the film holder, and then off to do the exposure, being sure not to take too long and let the plate dry out. Since wet plates are fairly slow in terms of sensitivity, the exposures can range anywhere from one second to ten seconds and up. Once you have made the exposure, it’s back to the dark tent to develop and fix the plate. From raw materials to a final tangible image in 5 minutes, let’s see digital do that! Once the plate is dry, it is finished with a varnish that contains lavender oil, a wonderful evening activity after dinner and a campfire at Camp Tintype. The scent was enough to make us happy and sleepy.
Here are a couple of tintype images. Stop by Beau and have a look at the original plates, they have a quality unlike anything else. Each image is an original. The silver in the image would ordinarily appear as a negative if shot on clear glass (known as an ambrotype -another wet plate process) but because it has a black backing, it becomes a positive. You can try this at home if you have an underexposed negative – and we all have one of those somewhere – you can kind of see the effect if you put it against a black piece of paper. If anyone has any questions about the process, feel free to ask me. At Beau, we sell tintype kits, though it is not at all the authentic chemistry it still has an interesting feel. We are also able to special order most of the chemicals needed for you to get you on your way to making your own wetplates.