{PHOTOGRAPHY}Ryan Sparks

TINTYPE REVIVAL

{PHOTOGRAPHY}Ryan Sparks
Modern day wet plate reenactment image of General Custer attempting to duplicate the original wet plate taken by Mathew Brady on May 23rd, 1865. Image taken by Shane Balkowitsch {wikipedia}

Modern day wet plate reenactment image of General Custer attempting to duplicate the original wet plate taken by Mathew Brady on May 23rd, 1865. Image taken by Shane Balkowitsch {wikipedia}

RYAN SPARKS

For the photographers working in the late 19th century, wet plate methods of photography weren't a personal choice, they were the state of the art. There was no aesthetic associated with the results other than the impressive reproduction of what the eye could see onto a tangible surface. Business boomed for talented private photography firms in every metropolitan area, and transient practitioners brought the phenomenon as far as the early roads could take them and their bulky gear.  Americana as a genre solidified around the tintype and ambrotype, as did our nascent celebrity-worship.  Our knack for the replication of prized objects that almost anyone can purchase was honed in these years, and we took notice of the new thrum of supply rushing to meet demand.

In the latter half of the 19th century, photographs were keepsakes and icons. Today, they are signatures, shorthand gestures, and avatars. They are prime for manipulation, misrepresentation, and unreliable as evidence. In the 150 years between innovation and a current wet plate renaissance, though, America hasn't shifted much in our tastes. The attributes muscular, hard-working, and long-lasting are still prized in everything from cars to boots to pain relievers. 

Wet plate photography scratches that itch for strength and permanence without being overly laborious. A prepared plate can capture full light through a lens in under thirty seconds, forgoing the uncomfortable long exposures of early photography methods.  The development process still requires skill and practice, though. That makes them applicable in today's artistic atmosphere.

Beyond the attraction of the process, though, there is the character of a wet plate photograph. They're monochromatic, especially responsive to bright light, and just a little unpredictable. 

Personal strokes are amplified. Almost all of the variables are in the photographer's hands. In portraiture, however, the subject provides a strong counterweight. Fierceness and determination usually shine through in a tintype.  At the same time, vulnerability and fragile spirits take to the technique easily. 

Few of the widespread applications of tintypes from the 19th century are still in vogue. The subjects that impress on a modern person's mind are usually of a dramatic type: soldier, statesman, workman, or musician. Celebrity runs through each of these archetypes. Its why they persevere. It's why, today, wet plate photography feels so naturally applied to the current practitioners of a certain artisanal heritage: string bands, bootmakers, game hunters, trailmakers, machinists. Windswept women, unbroken rivers, impressive trees.

A few months ago, it was tempting to me to equate the resurgence in wet plate practice with our fetishization of the vintage and faux-authentic. The following artists are just a few of the ones that changed my mind.

LISA ELMALEH

Elmaleh has named her camera "Fitzgerald Fitzwilliam Fitzgeorge." Her darkroom is in the back of a Toyota Tacoma. Her work captures classic Southern characters, but also some fantastic landscapes from the Florida Everglades. {Website}

ED DREW

Ed Drew started his military career at Little Rock Air Force Base. His travels with the military led him through Afghanistan, Japan, and Germany. He garnered attention last year for taking the first wet plate photographs in a combat zone in decades, but his work is primarily personal. He also studies sculpture and publishes poetry. {website}. 

He told Apogee Photo:

If you look at my hands, you will see silver nitrate stains.  Silver nitrate is very caustic.  It corrodes my skin.  The look of my hands means that I’ve involved myself into this process.  For me, making the plate and developing the photo are magical because I can see the real physical change in this world.  It’s a chemical change: I’m taking one thing and adding something else to it.  The process of tintype photography is so real.  That’s why I chose it.

LEAH SOBSEY & TIM TELKAMP

Last summer a group of lucky individuals got to build an emotional, multimedia documentary project around the Durham Bulls Triple-A baseball club in North Carolina. Bull City Summer drew in writers, photographers, and others who saw the Bulls play up to their usual high expectations. Among other expressions, Bull City Summer captured a few images of players and the ballpark in tintype, providing a modern baseline to gauge older photos by. 

One article in particular, Ground Down, about a minor league veteran with high hopes but realistic expectations is highly recommended by us.  Shelley Duncan's story is passionately but honestly told, and the wet plate photos of him display the hard-won experience favored by the practice.

Ryan Sparks is the editor of Southern Glossary.  Do you know of other exciting photographers working in wet plate? Let us know on Twitter and Facebook!