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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Photobooth

We walked in to Photobooth from Valencia Street. It was a simple gallery-type setting. The clean white walls and podiums were covered in photo art and retail. On display were plastic fish-eye cameras, cameras on keychains, refurbished Polaroid Land cameras. It was a candy store and I was the proverbial kid. I wanted to supermarket sweep the whole place.

I came to see the process and I was not disappointed. To our left, there was a live portrait session going. Straight ahead, a woman was finishing some plates. “We need music,” someone said. Cue music.

Michael Schindler is keeping alive a photographic process that dates somewhere from the 1850’s. He creates wet-collodian tintypes. The photo is created from his camera right onto an aluminum plate.

But, it is more than that.

Antiquated, dead, obsolete? You only have to walk inside the shop or, better yet, take a look at one of the tintypes to see why we still value this. You are looking at a singular moment, crystallized. One unique expression of yourself. Never to be duplicated. Living like a breath. Bathed in silver. Corporeal. Spectral.

“I realized right away, ‘Ah, this is what I’ve been looking for,’ ” Shindler, 40, says. “With a tintype, there is no negative, and you can’t reproduce the image. The plate gets changed by the light coming off the person. It’s direct physical evidence that the plate and the person were in the room together, like a thumbprint.”

Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/homeandgarden/article/Photobooth-shop-offers-tintype-Polaroid-shots-2439116.php#ixzz2HPJRRJ00

The tintype marked a time in history when photography was accessible to the working class. The previous Daguerreotype being affordable only to the wealthy. From the method to the storefront, Photobooth gives equitable access. Well done.