Tintype Photography, Part 2

Art, Thoughts

Just like the patterns in the grooves of 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 VFX element from those movies, 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…