On Tintypes

It started with an app. An app that filtered photos to make them look like they’d been taken with a tintype camera. I’d never really thought about tintypes, or wet plate photography, much before. It was Victorian families standing stiff and upright; Billy the Kid captured in time; eerily close-up portraits of long-dead people. But this filter…I liked how it made my perfectly ordinary portraits look.

Living in Austin, of course I could find an actual person still taking actual tintype photos. And those photos were beautiful.

So, I persuaded my wife to come along with me and we had our photo taken (or “We had our picture made” if you prefer).

And then, for his twenty-first birthday, we bought a photo session for The Student. Not because he necessarily wanted the photo – but I did. And isn’t that what other people’s birthdays are about?

The photo studio is a large caravan behind a fancy restaurant. It’s split into entranceway, studio, then, behind a door, the dangerous chemical room. You will know it’s a dangerous chemical room as anyone coming out of there will be wearing a mask rather more robust than an N95.

The camera itself looks exactly as it should. A large lens, an even larger concertina of rubber linking the lens to the plate. And then the large plate itself, where the chemical magic happens.

The Student was placed in the necessary position, a bright light (but not the brightest light…yet) was shone directly at him. A hammock of a light reflector between him and the camera.

“Should we tell him?” my wife whispered.

“Obviously not,” I said. As the buyer of the photo, I had a right to enjoy the experience. And by enjoy, I of course mean, watch in delight as my child gets a show he was not expecting.

As the photographer takes the photo, a flash goes off that is the photographic equivalent of a star exploding in your face. Your whole vision will be a bright white light for the next minute, although it’ll feel like more. It’s like standing there while the sun appears for a second, sears out your eyeballs, and then disappears.

It’s a very bright flash, is what I’m saying. I didn’t want him to know it was coming. Because we get our enjoyment where we can.

The photographer takes the plate and disappears into the toxic zone at the back. When he returns, a small metal plate is swishing around in some water. He shows you, as he splashes the water around the plate, how the image slowly appears. Using a coffee cup to make sure all of the plate is washed, he lets you see the process: like watching a Kodak Instant photo appear on paper, but infinitely more beautiful.

And then, by the magic of chemistry, your face is entirely visible, captured forever(ish) on a metal plate. You will, most likely, be looking sombre and serious.

This is a weird fact about tintype photos, and no one is really sure why. Maybe it’s our idea of what olde-timey photos should look like: Billy the Kid was not grinning into the camera; Great Grandma was not saying CHEESE while the kids were making rabbit ears behind her head. Tintypes are sombre…they are serious. 

Or maybe it’s just because someone has unexpectedly exploded a light grenade in front of your face. 

Whichever, I love my tintypes. If it wasn’t for the toxic chemicals, I’d dream about having my own camera. In my outside office, which would also be where I write, where I watch movies. I might need more than one shipping container at this rate.  

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