Tintype Photography: Back to the Future

                                             My tintype - It's me, but not as I know it

I’m not a fan of having my photo taken, never have been. You won’t find me on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter and the last time I took what has become known as a selfie, I had to take it to Boots to get it developed. That’s right, way back in the Dark Ages… about ten years ago!

When the redoubtable Carl Wilson offered to share collodion wet plate process with me, I thought he’d either been at the ether too long or there was something unpleasant afoot at the health farm. So it was with some surprise I found myself hemmed in on three sides by lights and lightboxes, my head cradled by a prop that protruded from a stack of shelves as I stared down the lens of a camera machine that had previously been fitted to the fuselage of a military aircraft and used for aerial reconnaissance.

Now, of course photography cannot steal your soul, but the sheer amount of flashlight needed to capture an image on a light-sensitive sheet of aluminium will certainly rob your eyesight momentarily. The light was so bright I half expected to have to follow it to an uncertain future!

People haven’t had their photos for a hundred years or more – this is what Victorians did for kicks at fairgrounds.

First of all there’s a load of setting up, fixing cameras to stands, moving lights back and forth, attaching backs, draping cloths and fixing up the prop. That’s followed by lots of jiggery pokery with chemicals to prepare the photographic plate, then you have to stand stock still for what seems like ages, before being blinded by a massive flash of light and told it’s all over. Did I blink? Probably, but Carl’s good enough to get the shot anyway.

Just as well, because there’s no film to wind on, no digi-card to fill up. One plate, one shot, that’s your lot. If it goes wrong you start again. Even when it goes well, there follows more fiddling about in the dark with chemicals before the faintest of images begins to appear on the metal. After a lot of washing in running water there’s a definite image. And it still has to dry thoroughly and be lightly varnished before the tintype is ready.

But the whole process is mesmerising. Pure magic. The sense of wonder transports me back to childhood when every day was packed with new discoveries. The results are like nothing else. At once ancient and modern, the image looks familiar and so it should – it’s actually a mirror image, reversed left to right from reality.

The focus is incredibly sharp at lens height but fades pleasingly to a chemical wash at the edge, which resolves into blackness. This is the photography my great-great grandfather would have known that was already old hat by the time my granddad went off to fight in the Great War. A century later a single frame feels endlessly more satisfying than any number of instantly rendered images that spill out of digital cameras the world over.

Call me old-fashioned and I’d take it as a compliment. Carl, you could be on to something here. 

left: Carl Wilson, photo alchemist and all-round clever fella

Tintypes explained

Popular in the second half of the 19th century, tintypes were a common feature at Victorian carnivals and fairs where photographers would produce souvenir images on thin pieces of iron.

The wet plate collodion process was invented in 1851 by a sculptor, Frederick Scott Archer, as an alternative to using albumen (egg white) that allowed him to reduce the exposure time needed to make a photographic image.

Collodion is a sticky solution of chemicals dissolved in nitrocellulose with ether and alcohol. When applied to a photographic plate – in this case a sheet of aluminium treated with a heavy black japanning lacquer – and dipped in a silver nitrate bath in darkroom conditions for three minutes it becomes light sensitive.

The plate is then placed in a holder and protected from the light by a dark slide before being fitted in the back of the camera. Once the dark slide is taken away the plate is exposed and the photograph can be taken.

The dark slide is then replaced, the plate removed and developed in the darkroom with a ferrous sulphate developer before being fixed with sodium thiosulphate.

Finally, a light coat of varnish is applied to seal the image resulting in a durable, distinctive finish that’s rich in saturated contrast with pin-sharp details that not even digital photography can fully match.

The current resurgence of interest in tintypes is born out by number and quality of original tintypes that are still in circulation today – only last year a new tintype image of infamous Wild West outlaw Billy the Kid came to light making it only the second known image of the gunslinger. The only previously verified image, also a tintype, sold for $2.3 million in 2011.