Tag Archives: analog

Tintype Photography, Part 2

Just like the patterns in the grooves of the hipster’s vinyl are the direct physical imprint of a pressure wave traveling through space, the presence of silver on a tintype plate is the mark left by all the photons that hit it. We shepherd a series of physical processes in order to transform matter and create a unique, tangible artifact that will stand as an independent physical record of who we are. It is no surprise that in an era of increasing digital ubiquity, relentless inquisitors want to reflect not only on what we have gained but also on what we have lost.

Matter matters

There is something profoundly human in the drive to make a physical imprint on the world around us. I’m guessing that humanity started scratching patterns in the sand around the time that it acquired language. We are driven to modify matter and make it hold something of us, and once we have done that, this matter becomes a neutral witness of our experience. It holds a record of everything that went into its state. On the one hand, the medium speaks of its own physical attributes: rock is hard but it can be carved and polished and lasts centuries. Paints can be spread around in different ways to change the color of a surface, and they are delicate and can be damaged over time. It also speaks of the experience of those who took on the task of shaping it: their culture and language, as well as their motivation.
When we make something, we are asking the universe to hold something of us. And when I say “universe”, I don’t mean it in the vague agnostic sense. I mean it in the “atoms and particles and time that form what we perceive around us, that we’re not even sure what it is, where it starts or end, that we’re made of but somehow feeling separate from…” sense. We shape matter and make it speak in some way about what it feels like to be us, and that transformation from an incorporeal mental construct into a physical manifestation bridges the gap between our experience and the physical world. When someone later comes in contact with this mark we made, they become part of the continuum. Imagine you discover some petroglyphs somewhere out in the desert. I suspect you will instinctively want to touch them, and that will directly connect you to the person who carved them. Depending where you fall in the spiritual spectrum, you can see this as a quest for oneness or an attempt to establish a foothold in an uncaring world, but either way, it affirms that “we exist”.

Bytes bite

An electronic record doesn’t support us in the way that a physical one does. It systematically pulverizes anything we feed it, regardless of its significance, and encodes it into endless streams of seemingly random on/off states from which we can perceive neither structure nor meaning. Also, in order to consume that digitally “captured” version of something, we rely on a decoding process to reassemble the raw data in a way that creates the likeness of the original. In the case of a simulation created entirely on a computer, we rely on computing power and algorithms to generate a signal that we recognize as something familiar. In either case, the stuff that holds the meaning is transient and immaterial; it reminds us of something but it is not that thing itself. As digital tools become more powerful, the illusion of similitude we are able to create becomes increasingly convincing but ultimately, it will never have the life of something physical. It may have a life of its own but it’s in an alien world of pure logic and without senses that we peer into through shiny devices and smooth interfaces; they lure us in with the illusory promise of infinite creative control but ultimately filter out all that is intangible in the world we actually inhabit. The machines aren’t able to transcode what they can’t quantify, the mysterious, the unexplained, the sacred. They digitize and represent the surface with methodical precision but they don’t capture the essence.

Herding photons

Going back to the original question: why do I enjoy making tintypes? I love the fact that each exposure results in a single tangible artifact and liberates me from the oppression of unlimited undo and plasticity. You prepare the shot as best you can, you commit your actions to the plate, and you see the results of it. Then you move on… It takes purpose, vision, courage, and conviction, because you can’t “fix it in post”. It’s a truly magic process, too, specially when you dunk the developed image in the fixer and watch the positive result appear through a milky cloud. I call it the Harry Potter moment because it looks like a cheesy visual effect from a movie, except real. Also, the way we have been working, it’s a very social activity. It takes about twenty minutes from start to finish and people tend to gather around the booth chatting and observing the process, usually with smiles on their faces. We take our time, we experiment…
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Tintype photography, part 1

You absolutely need to know about tintype photography! Tintype photography, also sometimes referred to as wet plate or collodion process, is an image making technique developed in the early 1850’s and was widely used through the second half of that century because of its ease of use, its sharpness, and the immediacy of the results. Technically, the wet plate process can be used to shoot negatives on glass which can be used later to create prints or to shoot tintypes which yield a single positive on a dark opaque support.
Jason, a friend from my old job, is a complete film and old camera junky and, with the help of the internet, had been putting together a kit that would allow him to experiment with the process. He introduced me to it and I was instantly hooked. Since then, we’ve been geeking out together and I’ve been helping out where I can on Tintypebooth with the goal of creating a mobile tintype kit. We’ve shot 4×5 portraits at the Venice art walk and Tarfest, and Jason sets up for portraits every Saturday at Bar Nine, a groovy coffee lover’s destination in Culver City.

The process

It’s actually surprisingly simple. The whole process takes about 15 minutes and consists of the following seven steps. Don’t be intimidated by the mention of the various chemicals and other fancy sounding science lab-ey processes; I personally wouldn’t know silver bromide from halide crystals if they wore name tags. You can buy all the stuff you need on the internet.

  • Coating: a black enameled aluminum plate is coated with collodion, a viscous solution containing salts.
  • Sensitizing: as soon as the collodion starts to gel, the plate is taken into a portable darkroom, dunked into a silver nitrate solution which turns the salts into light sensitive silver halides, and loaded into a film holder ready to be exposed
  • Exposing: this is the “taking the picture” part. The ISO of the plate is somewhere around .5 so fast lenses and a bright flash are used to avoid motion artifacts.
  • Developing: the exposed plate is taken back into the darkroom. An iron solution is poured on it until the the exposed silver halides turn into silver metal, at which point the developing process is stopped by rinsing off the solution with water.
  • Fixing: at this point the plate is still fully covered with silver, some developed some not. The fixer dissolves away the undeveloped silver. The silver remains on the areas of the plate that got the most light and the areas that got less light reveal the dark enamel support.
  • Washing: once the undeveloped silver is fully washed away, the plate is rinsed to get rid of any remaining fixer.
  • Varnishing: once the plate is dry, it is still very delicate and the coating can easily be damaged. A coat of varnish is used to preserve the plate.
  • Although looking at these images on a computer screen really doesn’t do any justice to the feel of handling the actual object itself, I’m including the scans of a couple portraits I did a while back to give a sense of the look.

    What’s the appeal of doing tintype?

    Stay tuned for part 2 of this fascinating series in which I use very long words to explain why I think tintypes are a very relevant medium to experience in our hyper digital world.

    All pictures on this page by Sary Madsen at Tintypebooth