The photos on the “Salts” feature pages are tintypes, which were introduced just before the Civil War. They eventually replaced daguerreotypes, which captured images on silver-plated copper, and became the most popular photography of the last half of the 19th century. Well before the era of the Polaroid, tintypes delivered a finished photo to a customer in just 15 to 20 minutes, if all went well.
The “film” for my tintypes is a blackened metal plate that I treat first with collodion — a mixture of nitrated cotton, ether, alcohol and metal salts — and then, in a darkroom under a red safe light, with a liquid silver solution. I compose my image through the lens of a wooden large-format camera, put a cap over the lens and load the metal plate into the camera in a special holder while it’s still “wet.” I remove the lens cap for a couple of seconds to get my exposure — the image — on the plate, then immediately develop it with a solution of iron sulfate, making sure all of this happens before the coating dries and the image is lost. Lastly, I fix the plate, wash it and coat it by hand with a varnish.
The process naturally reverses the image, which is why the lettering on Greg’s and John’s suspenders is backward.
I work in tintypes because I’m inspired by both the process and the artistry. A tintype is a physical image. It’s not digitized on a computer or in the cloud. I don’t even have to print it. The exposure is the picture, and each picture I create is unique, a one-of-a-kind object. I control every step of the process from start to finish. Even if the camera breaks, I can fix it. It’s a very simple piece of equipment. If the chemicals go bad, I mix up a fresh batch. I make everything from scratch.
What I particularly like about tintypes is the direct and intimate bond it forges between photographer and subject. I must see my subject clearly enough that I feel I know the person and can get the best pose and an image reflecting one of the tintype’s strengths: What you see is what you get. A good tintype makes a bold statement. If I pose the subject well and get the lighting and exposure right, the image will reveal a lot about the person in a true, honest way. The tintype allows me to focus on the fundamentals of who the person is. There’s no retouching, no manipulation.
Tintypes enable me to photograph contemporary people using artistry from bygone days. They pay tribute to the past while actualizing the present.