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Tintype photography and preservation

17 Jun

This past week, as an activity for my studies, I investigated one photographic process and I chose the tintype process. I now need a medium format camera as I just want to dive in and start taking tintype photos!

The tintype was discovered by Adolphe Alexandre Martin, in France, 1853 and patented in the USA in 1856 by Hamilton Smith (Martin et.al. 2008). Use of the tintype spread quickly and has an interesting history. As a process, the tintype was predominantly in use from 1853 to1930 (Lavédrine, p. 38). The process delivered photography to a wider audience, was a precursor to what is now known as street photography and a precursor of the photobooth (Martin et.al. 2008). The faster process, than the daguerreotype, contributed to more candid images and experimentation, as no longer did a pose have to be held for such a long time (p. 2). In the USA, the tintype process is responsible for collections of photographs taken during the civil war. For the first time photography was faster, portable and tintypists travelled with their portable darkrooms, unlike the studio setting of the daguerreotype. Furthermore, having an iron support made the photographs less fragile and people were able to mail them to each other or keep them in books whilst away (Lavédrine et.al. p. 37).

A tintype is a positive monochrome image on metal (Lavédrine et.al. p.4). The other two positive image processes of the 19th century are the daguerreotype (on copper plates and encased) and the ambrotype (on a glass plate also encased) (Reilly, 2009 pp. 51-52). The tintype is also known as a ferrotype, melainotype or melanograph (Lavédrine p. 38). The metal support has a thickness of approximately 0.15mm (Lavédrine et.al. p 35) and the sizes of the tintype were commonly 2.25 inches by 3.5 inches (Martin et.al. 2008). However, it was possible to produce multiple images, the size of a stamp, on one sheet. This is where the idea of the photobooth is born. Unlike the daguerreotype and ambrotype, which were housed in cases with a glass cover, the tintype mostly wasn’t. However, some were and when cased it is difficult to tell the difference between a tintype and an ambrotype. Reilly (2009) suggests a magnet being the only way without needing to remove the case (p. 52).

Lavédrine et.al (2009) elaborates the construct of a tintype. It consists of a metal sheet of iron as the support. The sheet was lacquered, often with darkened shellac. The metal support is then coated with a binder consisting of collodian mixed with bromide and/or iodide. This is bathed in a silver nitrate sensitiser causing the collodian solvents to evaporate. This plate is placed in a frame and inserted directly into a camera where it is exposed. The exposure time of a tintype varied from 2 to 10 seconds (Martin et.al. 2008). The sheet is then developed in a solution of ferrus sulphate and nitric acid and fixed. Finally a varnish is usually applied to the image. (Lavédrine et.al p 36). The whole process was complete in 10 to 15 minutes. The tintype process of creating the image is similar to the wet-plate collodian process. However, the darkened tin layer produces the effect of a positive, with the image remaining laterally reversed (Lavérdine et.al. 2009 p. 34).

The Tintype process appears to have experienced a revival in recent years with a few people currently working with this process including Keliy Anderson-Staley, who exhibited a mixed media installation titled ‘imagined family heirlooms: an archive of inherited fictions’. This installation incorporated Tintype portraits and found objects. Robb Kendricks had Tintype portraits of a Cowboy series featured in a National Geographic issue in 2007 and published books with his works. Alice Blanch is an Australian photographer that works with alternative photographic processes including the tintype. Gold street Studios in Victoria, Australia provide workshops in alternative processes.

It is interesting to locate a commercial portrait studio called Photobooth, in The Mission area of San Francisco that is dedicated to creating portraits specifically with the tintype process. Michael Shindler, the owner of Photobooth, utilises a medium format camera to create and sell tintype portraits to people who walk in for this purpose. Shindler describes the process of his work and, like others currently working with the tintype process, there are modifications to the original process. For instance one modification relates to the support utilised, which is a plaque made for trophies, sized 4 inches by 5 inches. As it is already black on one side this eliminates the need to coat the metal sheet with dark shellac. Shindler applies collodian, also a modified mixture, directly to the plate and proceeds with the rest of the process. Shindler sells the portraits for sixty dollars. The following clip, by Tested, has Shindler discussing his tintype process.

In a museum or archive setting, the George Eastman House, as well as being a Museum of Photography housing collections, delivers courses in the tintype process. As the tintype process documented much of the Civil War period in the USA, collections have developed in other museums or archives including The Black Archives of Mid-America; housing a tintype collection specific to African-Americans in the Mid-West. In Australia, Picture Australia produces a result for tintypes housed in Australian libraries.

Because most tintypes were not provided with a protective glass there are some specific preservation issues that distinguish it from daguerreotypes and ambrotypes. Initially, not having the glass encasement contributed to their robustness, which is why they were so portable (Lavédrine et.al. p 37). However, this portability has meant that they are often scratched or bent. Being metal they can easily rust in humid environments and this contributes to the image layer and lacquer to blister and even become detached from the support. The chemical components of tintype photographs are sensitive to light and can be damaged if displayed under strong light.

In light of this fragility of tintypes, Lavédrine et.al (2009) recommends keeping tintypes in storage envelopes and protected from light and humidity with a sheet of cardboard to prevent further changes or deformations (p.38).

Lavédrine, Bertrand & Gandolfo, Jean-Paul & McElhone, John P & Monod, Sibylle & Getty Conservation Institute (2009). Photographs of the past: process and preservation (English language ed). Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles, Calif.

Martin, A.A., Smith, H. & Wallis, B. (2008) The Birth of the Snapshot, American History, 43(5); 48-53.

Reilly, J.M. (2009) Care and Identification of 19th-Century Photographic Prints, Kodak publication, no. G-2S. Rochester, NY: Eastman Kodak Co.

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