The wet plate collodion process was developed by Frederic Scott Archer and introduced in the 1850s. It became a very popular photographic process by the end of the decade and virtually replaced the first photographic process, Daguerrotypes. It remained popular until the 1880’s, when it was replaced by the gelatin dry plate process, which was a more convenient process, due to its increased sensitivity (leading to shorter exposure times) and the fact that it could be prepared in advance and used at a later time.
The wet plate collodion process is a fairly simple one, requiring the photographer to dissolve a soluble iodide into a collodion solution and coating a plate with it. The plate was then immersed in a silver nitrate solution in the darkroom, put into a special plate holder, and while stil wet, put in a camera and exposed. The solution is only sensitive while it is wet, and so it was imperative to expose the plate during that time. It is developed by pouring a solution of iron sulfate, acetic acid and alcohol. It is finally fixed with a solution of sodium thiosulfate or potassium cyanid. Again, the plate must be developed and fixed while still wet, because as it dries the collodion layer becomes waterproof and does not allow the solutions to penetrate and react with the silver nitrate layer. The final part of the process involves applying a varnish, to protect the surface of the image from scratches, although often they were immediately put into protective cases and left unvarnished. This process was valued because it shows a high level of detail and has amazing clarity when exposed properly. It is also interesting because the silver halides in the silver nitrate solution are sensitive to actinic light, which means that it is more sensitive to blue and uv light, so colors and light-waves in that spectrum show up extremely light and colors in the orange and red end of the spectrum show up significantly darker.
A Tintype, which has also been known by the name of melainotype and ferrotype, was a process patented in 1856 by Hamilton Smith, using the collodion process on a metal plate. Originally a thin sheet of iron was coated with a dark lacquer, also known as japanning, which is similar to enamel paint and was used in China and Japan as a decorative coating for pottery and made its way to Europe in the 17th century. With a tintype a direct positive is made on the sheet, which is slightly different from using glass, in that you can make either a positive or negative image with a glass sheet. Tintypes were also less fragile and cheaper to use, which was a great benefit to photographers who, as the process became more popular, would travel around the country, working at carnivals or fairs, or would travel on their own, going town to town with a cart of their materials, a portable darkroom and props. The process also became popular because, when compared to the daguerreotype, it is a much quicker process, taking only a few minutes from start to finish, and is significantly less fragile. They were easy to carry around on a person, and were popular during the Civil War for this reason, as they would survive the difficult conditions soldiers were in and would not break or add much weight to their belongings. Tintypes experienced a level of popularity through the 1870s and 80s, as it was finally supplanted by paper-based photographic printing processes, though some carnivals and fairs continued to see its use at photo booths and it continued to be used on smaller levels throughout the 20th century. The contemporary resurgence of the wet plate process is a fascinating development in the photography world, with many new users responding to the ubiquitous nature of digital photography in our lives and the lack of value in an item that literally anyone can produce at any time with a number of devices. We are lucky that a group of photographers and chemists studied the process in the late 20th Century and after much experimentation and researching old photography manuals, were able to put the pieces together to recreate a number of these processes, which allows those of us finding ourselves interested in the 21st Century to have clear sources of information as well as a number of workshops and groups available to participate in to learn the process.
There are many reasons that photographers explore wet plate, and is currently used for fine art images (including still life, conceptual portraits, and landscapes), traditional portraiture, portraits during Civil War Re-enactments most commonly. Tintypes can be produced on tiny plates as small as a 35mm frame and as large as the wall of a box truck and every size in between. Cameras are found in antique shops, but are also being made new by a few companies world wide, or sold as kits you can make yourself. You can also modify cameras that you already own and shoot wet plate using toy-cameras like Holgas and Dianes, Polaroid cameras, Pinhole cameras and any 35mm you can find… it is a pretty amazing medium to be able to explore and there are almost endless possibilities for its use. I am obsessed with the tintype process because it reminds me of my first photographic experiences as a child, when making pictures was like magic. I played with photo-sensitive papers and created silhouettes of insects, flowers and leaves and thought it was possibly a miracle. Later, I was able to take my tiny little camera and capture images of my family, friends and pets, send the cartridge away and get back a few days later a permanent record of those events, which was only slightly less magical.
When I first started collecting tintypes, it was because they were so different from other vintage photographs- there was something haunting about the images and something timeless. When I finally was able to attend a workshop with Mark Osterman at the George Eastman House, I saw the magic of the process and it reminded me of my childhood, at which point I was hooked. As my first plate was developed and the image started to appear, and then when I fixed it and the cyanide swirled away and exposed the image underneath, I knew this was going to be a process that I would love and would add another dimension to my photography.
Tintypes are all about chemical mixtures and finding the right combination of the basic components to create the right solution for your environment and your needs… it is about experimentation with both chemicals but also with light and exposure. It isn’t like digital photography, you can’t change it later in post-processing— you make one image, that can never be replicated and cannot be changed once you are done… it is a finite process with a number of variable that will effect your image. And for me, it is magic… it reminds me that while sometimes it isn’t a perfect plate, not everything has to be perfect to have value. I love that I mess it up and don’t know what changed, what I did wrong this time that I didn’t do the last 10 plates I made…. is it more humid, colder, dryer? All these things change how the chemistry will work and have to be taken into account… and then exposure can be an issue… is there more daylight or less? What color is the subject wearing? It takes skill and practice and still it sometimes even then, it doesn’t work out the way you think it will.
The portrait of Jae created during the workshop:
I am just starting on this journey and I can’t wait to share this experience with as many people as I can. I am creating tintype portraits at the studio in Watertown so anyone can have access to this unique process and can have a one-of-a-kind image made of themselves that they can treasure and pass on to their descendants. It is important to remember our roots and to understand how things that we take for granted now, came to be.
One of my Skull Still Life images: