Early American wet-plate photography is firmly ingrained in our nation’s mythos for a reason: compared to the existing methods from Europe, it was cheap and easy. In a nation full of entrepreneurs who weren’t beholden to guilds or art societies and who had customers instead of patrons, many family businesses were founded on tintype and ambrotype technology. The demand for photographic keepsakes exploded and hasn’t slowed down since.
Today, images are more like currency than ever: minted constantly and fluctuating in value. Family businesses built on the tintype format are popping up across the country, and while they’re not churning out images by the thousands, they’re crafting artifacts and keepsakes that can survive for centuries just like the pioneers of their field 150 years ago.
Adrian Whipp, of Lumiere in Austin, Texas, trained in analog photography styles during college and decided to return to his creative side after a few years in the corporate world.
“There is a depth and beauty to the images that is just captivating. My first images were terrible, the learning curve can be pretty vicious—but I immediately saw a gap in the market for that kind of photography, and pursued it pretty vigorously until I had it figured out.” Lumiere now operates out of a small wooden studio attached to the back of a pickup truck. “The intention was always to operate from a mobile studio, the same way it would have been done 150 years ago, so that I could introduce tintypes to people that had no idea they could still be made.”
Whipp’s wife, Loren Doyen, works in the darkroom. They do a lot of portraiture in their studio, but also work on assignment for brands like Helm Boots and Revival Motorcycles.
Whipp believes that the attraction to tintypes comes from its inherent character as a handmade product. “We mix our own photographic chemistry, hand pour each plate to order. It is the antithesis of the perfect and endlessly reproducible digital image. As hard as I strive for perfection in my working processes, every plate has some artefact or flaw that tells us about how and where it was made. It may be a thumbprint in the corner, a chemical swirl from the developer, a comet or streak from dust that landed on the plate as I poured the collodion.”
Josiah Morgan took a different path to tintypes. As a freelance director of photography, he traveled extensively working on digital and video projects. In his early thirties and with a baby on the way, he decided it was time to find a way to be home more often. He came across tintypes and had his own aha moment.
“Becoming a father caused me to think about things like legacy and creating lasting value,” he told me. “Tintypes last for generations. They also have wonderful character..Knowing that it will be part of someone's family for generations is a great feeling.”
Morgan opened his own portrait studio in the basement of his Atlanta, Georgia, home. He’s found that many people are looking for ways to make the images that are important to them more permanent than a printout.
“Tintypes are a moment captured in silver, and they can never be duplicated,” he said. “There are so many images online that even great images have become ordinary. There is also something about view image through a screen. It just doesn’t have the same impact as a physical object. An image that lives on your nightstand or wall where it can be seen everyday has an impact whose value should not be underestimated.”
Whipp and Morgan both agree that their customers are intrigued by the aesthetic of a tintype, but that the aesthetic isn’t intrinsic to the format itself. The process is a craft that takes work in order to consistently produce clear, worthwhile plates.
Morgan said, “Right now, people are in love with anything has a vintage look and frequently mistake vintage for poor quality. Wetplate images made by a good craftsman have a striking beauty.”
Recently, a photographer produced some tintype portraits of celebrities at the Sundance Film Festival, pleasing many consumers of cool internet content but drawing the ire of many working wet-plate photographers. The photos exhibit a preponderance of what Morgan calls “unnecessary character" often seen in beginner's work.
Adrian Whipp says that, good or bad, the debate over the Sundance tintypes has raised the awareness of the format. He just hopes that people working at all levels of expertise are striving to hone their work. “So long as the 'amateur' has a focused intention of improving their process, of making cleaner, sharper, and more accurately exposed plates, then more power to them. I will say, it is not enough to simply hide behind the artefacts of a poorly executed plate with no idea of what went wrong and call it 'artistic'. The tintype photographers that I admire have taken years of focused practice to produce images so clean that they are almost indistinguishable from a sheet of film. More importantly however, they have mastered the art of intentionally introducing and controlling 'mistakes' in their process for artistic effect.”
Unless something catastrophic happens, the analog world has to kowtow to the digital one for exposure or long-distance sharing. Lumiere provides digital copies of their tintypes so that their customers can share them. Morgan has built a large component of his business transferring digital images onto tintype plates with a method of his own devising. I asked both proprietors to respond to the idea that wet-plate was a tactile, real world version of an Instagram filter. It seemed appropriate since Instagram even wrote instructions on how to make your own in-app faux tintype.
Whipp is interested in why we're so attracted to filters in the first place. He said, "I think they satisfy a nostalgic desire for the photography that we all grew up with - creased and faded photographs of family members, metal tintypes, or the alchemy of a Polaroid appearing before your eyes. I think it's great that these filters exist - they serve to help us all readjust to a photography that no longer principally exists in the physical realm. I love Instagram; it is such an awesome stream of photographic creativity - however its not the filters that make it so important, its the billions of people out there who are actually creating content."
Morgan doesn't seem concerned with defending an analog image as more valuable than a digital one in terms of authenticity. "An Instagram photo is a totally authentic Instagram photo. It is its own thing. It is definitely not a wet-plate image, because that involves chemicals. What about hybrid processes, like our tintype prints? Many people would argue that our tintype prints are not true tintypes because the image on the plate didn’t come directly from a real life scene. In a way, they are right," Morgan said.
So often what we see in a photograph reflects what we see in ourselves, and our thoughts towards the subject. Photography has become as malleable a language as English, prone to borrowed concepts, short-lived lingo, and culturally affected dialects. Between old and new technology, what endures is the drive to make an image that resonates.
Read about creative artists working in wet-plate photography.
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