Yes, it has been many months since I have made a blog posts. I can list a million reasons why, but the excuses are not good enough, so I won’t. So, I will just get back to blogging!
One of the great things about working (and attending!) Francis Marion University is the University’s commitment and emphasis on experiential learning outside of the classroom. Last year, I wrote and received a grant to take students to the Outer Banks of North Carolina so they could learn the modern tintype process as well as build and use a portrable darkroom. Part of the grant included the students exhibiting their work on campus, which they did this past March. It was a great experience and we all learned so much, mainly because we made a lot of mistakes, which seems to be a wonderful way of learning a new process.
For those not familiar with this process, here is a brief explanation:
There are 2 approaches to making a tintype. One is considered the classic or authentic method, while the other is called the modern tintype or gelatin dry plates. The authentic method grew in popularity during the American Civil War because they were cheaper and more lightweight than photographic methods that preceded the tintype. American soldiers and their family members could have their portraits made for less than 25 cents allowing them to possess a priceless memento while separated during the war. Even with the introduction of digital technology, there are photographers who still enjoy the results of this process. The authentic tintype methods involves coating an enameled metal plate with a solution of gun cotton, ether and alcohol. The plate is then dipped into a silver nitrate bath to sensitize the plate. The coated plate is then loaded into the camera and the exposure is taken. The plate is returned to the darkroom where it is developed in a ferrous sulphate solution until the image appears. It is then “fixed” in a bath of fixer so that it is no longer sensitive to light. While the classic tintype method is authentic to its creation, the chemicals required are toxic, quite expensive and highly sensitive.
The alternative to the authentic process is the modern tintype or the gelatin dry plate process. It is the successor to the “wet-plate” process, is less expensive and requires chemicals that are less toxic. A light sensitive liquid emulsion is coated onto a black metal plate. The liquid emulsion contains silver-halide crystals suspended in gelatin. When the emulsion has dried on the plate it can be loaded into the camera to make an exposure. The plate is then returned to the darkroom where it is developed in a special developer which makes the image a positive. Both tintype methods result in “first generation” prints, which eliminates the need for a negative used in conventional analog photography. Because the negative is eliminated the prints or plates come out with an image in reverse. This is especially noticeable if there are words in the image.
In recent years, there has been a resurgence of photographers practicing these two tintype methods. Many would argue that these results could be created in Photoshop. Perhaps image makers reviving this process are searching for methods that show more of the artist’s hand in the final print.
In November of 2012, a group of FMU students traveled to Asheville, North Carolina to learn the wet-plate process (the authentic process). In the Fall of 2013, a group of FMU students traveled to the Outer Banks to experiment with the modern tintype process. One of the limits of these processes is that you must have a darkroom near by. To combat this, students created a darkroom (light tight box) portable enough to fit in the back of a van that was used on location in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Students photographed the large sand dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park and then traveled historic HWY 12 to Ocracoke Island, where they continued their tintype experience.
For part of the exhibit, I collaborated with the students and made a modern tintype portrait of the students who went on the trip using a Bourke and James 8×10 camera…what a beast!
By the way, this is what happens when you try to do this process when it is hotter than 75 degrees. The emulsion melts off the plate, so it is definitely a tricky and tedious.
Some of the images in this collage were contributed by FMU students who went on the trip. Thanks Tari Federer, Elizabeth Kinser, and Chelsea Avant!
The image at the top was not done in camera, but in the darkroom. I placed the leaves on top of the coated plate and exposed it to light using an enlarger.