The tintype is a 19th Century photographic process, in which a photograph is produced on a piece of lacquered iron. The process, also known as a melainotyope and ferrotype, was popularized in the mid 19th Century as a sort-of first version of the instant photograph. In recent years, as photographic technology continues to develop in alignment with the digital age, the tintype and other 19th Century processes have gone through a resurgence. Since starting The Tintype Studio this past summer, I’ve come to realize, through its history and social context, that the tintype process is as relevant today as it ever was, not only as a portrait medium, but also as an artistic one.
The tintype process was first conceived by Adolphe- Alexandre Martin in 1853, shortly after Fredrick Scott Archer invented the wet-plate collodion process, and was later patented in the United States and Great Britain in 1856. Almost identical to the ambrotype, which uses glass instead of metal, the tintype quickly caught on in America as the photograph for the masses. It was fast, cheap, mobile and much more durable than other processes available at the time. A tintype can be coated, sensitized, exposed, developed, fixed, washed, dried and varnished in less than 10 minutes. This nearly instant form of photography became accessible at outdoor fairs and carnivals to those who couldn’t afford to get a photograph taken in a private studio. The tintype was the most common photographic process until the creation of the gelatin based processes introduced by Kodak in the late 1880’s.
There are inherent characteristics of the tintype process, which make it a unique and coveted medium. First is that a tintype is one of a kind. There is no negative produced that can be used to create endless reproductions of the original. Each plate is used to produce a single image that gains value beyond the representation of the subject itself and gravitates toward the actual handheld object. It is also an experience that is alien to individuals of time, where control, ease, flexibility and economics are paramount to producing photographs. Where the digital age has allowed for total manipulation of the photographic medium and ignorance of how it works, the tintype process allows the sitter to take a step into the physical process itself, and get a feel for what it was like to have a portrait taken in the 19th Century.
Another reason why this process is unique from other photographic mediums is the direct contact between the sitter and the physical photograph. It is one of only a handful of photographic processes where the finished object was in the same space with the individual getting photographed. Most photographs have a generational loss, where the tintype is made directly from the light reflecting from the sitter. This is why tintypes were and still are cherished more than a standard photographic print. If the tintype was of a lost family member, the keeper of the object could have solace in the fact that the piece of metal they were holding was in the same room as their loved one and captured their likeness for all eternity.
The Tintype Studio
The Tintype Studio is a re-creation of a 19th Century traveling photo studio. It is a collaborative effort between four friends and Ontario College of Art and Design graduates, Miles Collyer, Stuart Sakai, Greg Snow and myself. After receiving my BFA, I went on to complete my Master’s in Photographic Preservation and Collections Management from Ryerson University. It was while at Ryerson that I learned about the tintype process. Soon after, the idea to recreate a tintype studio came to me, and was realized when shared with my soon-to-be partners while sitting around a roaring fire on the shores of the French River.
We decided that our first baptism by fire would be the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition at City Hall. The months leading up the TOAE were spent perfecting our craft. This involved testing lighting set-ups, chemistry recipes, branding and fabricating our own tent and worktables. Our main goal was to recreate the 19th Century traveling portrait studio, right down to the chemistry recipes and the 19th Century box camera replica.
Although our techniques were of traditional means, we did have to introduce a few 21st Century elements. These were the physical plates that the photographs are produced on and the lighting. 19th Century tintypes were created using a lacquered piece of iron. Instead we use trophy metal. These thin pieces of aluminum have a bright black surface, which works perfectly for the process. It’s readily available, can be cut to any size, and has a protective layer of film that is removed just before use. The other element that needed to be updated was the lighting. Since we were attempting to produce plates over a three-day span, at an open- air festival in which over 100,000 people attend, we couldn’t rely on daylight. We needed a light source that would produce consistent results. To achieve this we used strobe lighting, which gave us instantaneous exposures with the added bonus of not needing to worry about subjects moving during exposure. The TOAE ended up being a great success. We fought off the 12-hour days of extreme heat and produced over 100 plates. Since then, we have gone on to produce tintypes at the Sunnyside Art Fair, The Wedding Collection Exhibition at Stephen Bulger Gallery and our first indoor portrait session.
Since it’s invention over 150 years ago, the tintype has allowed the general public access to inexpensive portraits. Before the creation of the wet-plate process, the photograph was an expensive object that only the affluent could afford. It also exposed the common person to the photograph, and the experience of having your photograph taken. Fast forward to the 21st Century, where people have hundreds of photographs taken of themselves every year. Despite the fact that tintypes are now expensive and require a great amount of knowledge and equipment to produce, people are more than willing to pay for not only the tintype, but also the experience itself. In the brief amount of time we’ve been doing this I’ve found that people really understand and appreciate its value. This is what we want to achieve with The Tintype Studio—not only producing a unique product, but a unique experience.