Tintype Photography: Then and Now

Pease's Nantasket Tintype Gallery photo

Tintype portrait in a paper mat taken at Pease’s Nantasket Tintype Gallery (via Wikipedia)

The Atlantic recently featured a post on tintype photography and a short video about Harry Taylor, a modern professional photographer who uses the technique in his own work. I found the process interesting and the images striking, so I wanted to share a little of the history, and the video, with you.

Tintype photography developed as an alternative to daguerreotypes and ambrotypes. The process was first described in France in 1853 and was patented three years later in both the U.S. and the U.K. by Hamilton Smith and William Kloen, respectively. The method produced a very underexposed image on a thin iron plate that is lacquered black or dark brown and then coated with collodion photographic emulsion (the wet plate collodion method was developed in 1851 and used collodion rather than egg white over glass photographic plates, which reduced the required exposure time to capture an image). In a negative image, the dark portions of the photographed subject appear lighter or more transparent and the “dark background gives the resulting image the appearance of a positive.” Click here to watch a short video that goes through the procedure from start to finish.

The ability to use underexposed images meant that portraits could be produced much faster than before, which was a serious advantage over other contemporary photographic processes. In addition to shorter exposure time, tintypes did not need much time to dry after being taken and a photograph could be produced within minutes. Tintype photographs were also more durable than daguerreotypes and ambrotypes, as well as cheaper and lighter. Due to these advantages, tintype photographs became extremely popular at fairs and carnivals, and were the preferred method for street photographers throughout the rest of the nineteenth century.

Clearly the process was an important step in the evolution of photography, but compared to the ease and speed of a digital camera the method seems rather laborious for a modern photographer. But it forces the photographer, and the subject, to have a deeper involvement with the process, which is exactly what draws Harry Taylor to using this technique in his own work. The images on his website are beautiful and often haunting, and worth taking a look at. In the video below, filmmaker Matt Morris takes us into Taylor’s studio for a glimpse at the photographer at work.

American Tintype from Matt Morris Films on Vimeo.

The Appeal of Tintype Photography in a Digital Age [The Atlantic]

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