On Real-Life Tintypes

As discussed here, I love me some old-timey photos. So, when I found somewhere in Austin that actually produced the real thing, I had to follow up. This is going to be my Xmas present to myself: a genuine tintype picture of me and my wife to hang on my wall. 

Finding the place turned out to be a little tricky. On Google Maps, it looked to be behind a fancy restaurant. When we got there, it turned out to be in the grounds of a fancy restaurant. When you have a cool camera, you make sure you have a similarly cool camera bag. If your camera is the size of a medium-sized person, then you need something a little larger. And this is why we found ourselves standing outside an actual caravan, of the kind that might in years gone by have been the home of a fortune teller or a circus performer.

Inside, maybe 75% of the space was mostly empty: tintype photos decorated the walls, a tiny little desk sat in the corner, and then there was the camera. I couldn’t take my eyes off the camera. It was mostly tripod, but the machine itself was a heavy-looking plate holder attached to a lens by means of rubber bellows that concertinaed up and down to focus the whole thing.

I wanted one. Until the small door at the far end opened and the photographer stepped out, accompanied by the kind of smell that reminded me of my childhood, when my ma was dying her hair with some god-awful chemical mixture, except this one was maybe 10-times as strong and maybe mixed with a year’s worth of cat pee. It was pretty bad. The guy was wearing what looked like a heavy-duty dust mask. If he’d been wearing a full WWII gas mask, I wouldn’t have blamed him.

It took 5 or 10 minutes to set everything up for the shot. He placed us in front of a blank background, then added a small step for my teeny-tiny wife to stand on. “Am I taller than him now?” she asked, hopefully. He looked up to quickly check.

“Um, no,” he said. Of course not, I thought.

After we were in position, he added a reflector the size of a small surfboard under our chins and an external flash the size of a small sun a little way away.

Now, this is the time to talk about what is apparently the big question when being photographed like this: to smile or not to smile? Of course, it’s a picture, so we’re supposed to smile, right? But in them-olden-days, people didn’t smile. And so, whether deliberately or through some kind of communal memory, people tend not to smile when they have their picture taken with a tintype now. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I didn’t know how long we would have to hold our pose – was it going to be for a long time? If so, then I wasn’t going to smile. A smile held for more than a couple of second looks like something weird and terrifying at the end.

‘I’m going to count down from three,” the photographer said. And he did. At “1” he took the picture. And, if you’re familiar with what it feels like when a small sun goes supernova three feet from your head, then you’ll know what it felt like when that damn flash went off.

“Wow,” we said, when we really meant, “Argh, our faces are melting!”

“That why I don’t like to mention it,” he said. “I like it to be a surprise.” Cute.

He took the metal sheet with the image now imprinted on it out of the back of the camera and into the poisonous dark room. After two minutes, he came out with the sheet in a small tub. He was rinsing it with water from a mug. We watched as the black surface slowly formed into a negative and then a positive image of my wife and a strange-looking man standing beside her.

It seemed like magic happening as we watched. It was just what I wanted.

We wandered east Austin for an hour while the image dried and whatever else it needed to happen before we could take it home. The feeling reminded me of the time I got my first (and, so far, only) tattoo. I loved the whole experience and couldn’t wait to get another one. But, I’d have to save up. Old-world art doesn’t come cheap.

As I put it into a frame the next day and hung it on a wall in what we like to call our “reading parlor”, it felt more than worth it. As I get older, I find that things are less interesting than experiences. Experiences are where I would most like to spend my money. And there, hanging on the wall, is a thing that reminds me of one of the most interesting experiences I’ve had in Austin. Worth every cent.

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