August 23, 2015 11:54 pm
Many years ago I bought a handmade book with an antique tintype of a woman embedded into the cover. I intended to turn the book into a photo album of my pictures or maybe even my father’s. However, as I assessed the pictures in my archive and my fathers, I found none that I deemed worthy of this book with a beautiful cover. It remains blank to this day. The tintype on the cover beguiled me with the importance and meaning of a portrait. I did not know when I discovered this book, that I would one day be making tintypes myself.
The art and craft of making wet-plate collodion, tintypes is elaborate and dirty work. The silver nitrate used to sensitize the plates can oxidize on your skin and form a dark brown stain. The process is a finicky one that necessitates patience, experience and a touch of luck to make a good plate. It requires a portable darkbox or tent to sensitize and develop your plates in while on location. Your plates are the same size as the back of your camera, so if you want large plates, you must have a large camera.
The tin is coated with collodion (a mixture of gun cotton, alcohol and ether) and poured by hand on to your plate. It’s then sensitized in a bath of silver nitrate for several minutes. Once that’s done it’s placed into the back of the camera and it’s ready for exposure. Exposure times are guesstimated, and because the process is a wet one, the speed of the medium is very slow. My exposures range from ½ second to minutes, depending on subject matter, lens and light.
The next step is development, which is done in the dark box. Once developed and rinsed, the plate is taken out of the dark box and into the daylight where it’s fixed. This is the moment of excitement and discovery. As the plate is submerged into the fixer bath it transforms right in front of your eyes. It goes from looking like a bluish negative to becoming a positive image on blackened metal…in essence, a tintype.
This dark art, the craft of collodion is like old-fashioned magic. There are potions and elixirs that stain your fingers and have a strong smell. There is a dark box with a cloth of mystery and enchantment. There is a feeling of anticipation and exhilaration as each plate emerges from the fixer. The sense of collaboration is palpable, as my subjects and I both wait for the image to clear, to see if we each held up our end and made a good picture.