Making Tintypes: Magic and Science

The smell of ether is sharp, sweetish, acidic and strangely sensual. The darkroom had been improvised from a closet  at the Morris Museum of Art. Since the process is not as sensitive as conventional methods, the room wasn’t completely light tight. I pulled the dark curtain across the cracks of light escaping through the door frame and flipped off the “white light.”

“It’s like magic,” the woman said. We watched the chemicals spread across the aluminum plate. An image began to materialize.

“…or science.” said Keliy. The tintype lay across her gloved palm. She rotated her wrist to coat the plate evenly with developer. When she was satisfied, she tilted it until a corner of the tintype rested inside the mouth of a glass bottle and then poured the excess liquid off.

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Anderson-Staley’s 8×10 Deardorff view camera

The dreamy alchemy, the deft ritual and the strange chemical smells were spellbinding.

Wet plate collodion, which dates back to the  1800’s, has been experiencing a revival in the last few decades as a boutique historical photographic process. I was assisting one of the preeminent artists using this method.

The entire process must be started and completed with a wet plate within ten minutes so agility is required. In the 19th century, where it began, the sitter had to remain as still as possible for an excruciating long exposure.

Now you know why people looked so grumpy in those old-timey photographs.

On this day, Keliy was exposing at a ten-twelve second average.

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University of South Carolina Adjunct Professor Eliot Dudik sits for his portrait with Keliy Anderson-Staley

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Meg Griffiths, a photography professor at USC, sits for her portrait.

A tintype is a positive image that is made right on the metal plate.

A little fussier than Instagram, sure, but the uniqueness and craft of that singular image is a handmade, one-of-a-kind artist’s original. The very existence of the tintypes today physically connects us to a rich photographic history.

Even though I wore my gloves like I was instructed, the silver nitrate left a zizag across my pinkie nail; a little bronze lightning bolt. An initiation.

Observing Kiley Anderson-Staley, I would have to say that an artist of this measure must be equipped with many things; not the least of which is, generosity.

She instructed, informed, posed models, and squeezed people in to a packed schedule with grace and patience.

There is some kind of magic in that, too. WP_006540 (1)

Think you might like this? Give it a whirl! Here are two kits to get you started.

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One Must Imagine Sisyphus Happy

I have spent so much time in school learning how to use equipment. That was the first really big goal. Getting to know my F-stop, shutter speed, ISO. Manual focus vs. auto. Aperture priority or program mode.

Then I was learning about chemicals in the darkroom. What to leave in and for how long varies depending on paper type, brand of film and temperature of the developer…among other things!

Once I felt pretty confident about all that, I turned my attention toward other details. What is the best way to photoshop out an “exit” sign? How on earth do you pose a model? Where did I put my lens cap this time!?

Then, I was searching for the light…

Golden Hour
golden

Blue Hour

Blue Hour

Happy Hour
Happy Hour

A hallmark of photography is that you are constantly learning. If you think you have plateaued, it is really just your brain taking a break from the Sisyphean pursuit of achievement.  You have probably just produced something really great looking, something you are really proud of. Congratulations, my erudite friend, but get back under that boulder because there is always more work to do!

I am constantly thinking about my work. When I am not shooting, I am often planning. Lately, I have been thinking more about what I am saying and, more importantly, what I want to say with my work. When I am more in control of the message I feel I will have accomplished the next big thing.

Recognizing that you have a long way to go can be a very frustrating thing.  It also means you have come pretty far.  Mastering all those other skills gives you the freedom to be an artist. At least, this is what I tell myself every time I look at someone else’s wonderful photo and know I am not quite there…yet.

I have spent some time pondering a sneaky collaborator: the influence.  Sometimes I seek it out and sometimes it pops up on me in ways I never expected.  More insidious than the artists you admire are the pieces of popular culture that actually creep into your aesthetic. I grew up in America in the 80’s. Popular culture was the aesthetic. Try as I might, I can’t “take the mall out of the girl.”

As an homage to my precarious perch on the next great foothold on this dang mountain (…to belabor the metaphor, a.k.a., The Myth of Sisyphus), I am linking you to a youtube video that is an amusing amalgamation of my influences. Before he was spit-shined into a reality star, Ozzy was just a simple Rock God in a leopard-print robe, serving up breakfast for his family and a documentary film maker. At the intersection of rock-and-roll and domesticity. Suburban artist. Complete failure at normal. Scrambling eggs.