Rita Kovtun describes her experience taking a tintype photography workshop at MCAD.
Rita Kovtun describes her experience taking a tintype photography workshop at MCAD.
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In today’s digital-driven world, there’s something special about holding an image you made on a piece of metal, knowing it will last more than a century.

Like many others, I was drawn to tintype photography because of its beautiful, stark images and my desire to get more involved in the process of making a photograph. As a staff member at MCAD, I was eager to take the MCAD Continuing Education class Tintype Photography Workshop with Zoey Melf to learn more about this antique photographic process.

Tintype photography began in the United States in the mid-1800s, around the Civil War era, as a cheaper alternative to the daguerreotype and quickly became the picture-making preference of the people. Its popularity lay in that tintypes were the cheapest, easiest, and fastest to produce, as well as the most accurate method of photography that had yet existed, preceding the arrival of film at the end of the century.

Tintype Photography Workshop

Tintype image by spring 2016 workshop students

Making a Tintype

Although tintype can be considered the first kind of instant photography, today the process seems complicated and laborious—and slightly perilous—until you get the hang of it. Tintype uses the wet plate collodion process, which involves coating a photographic plate—in this case, a piece of black aluminum—with collodion (a highly flammable, syrupy solution) and then soaking it in silver nitrate (a corrosive chemical substance that can stain skin) to create a light-sensitive surface ready for picture-taking. Before the plate dries out (so, within ten minutes), the photographer must put the plate into a holder, then load that into the back of a large-format camera, and, having already set up the lighting and shot beforehand, click the shutter and wait as the plate is exposed to create an image.

After the image is exposed, the photographer takes out the plate and runs back to the darkroom to develop the picture. There are no negatives in this process; the image lives solely on its plate, and because of this comes out as a mirror image of the subject. In the next step, the photographer dunks the plate in the fixer, a mix of chemicals that makes the image permanent and light-resistant, and gently rocks the tray as the image appears and magically flips from a negative to a positive—or comes out over or underexposed (something all of us in the class experienced and learned from). After that, it sits in a water bath as the image solidifies.

Tintype Photography Workshop 

Tintype image by spring 2016 workshop students

In order to preserve the image longer, there are several finishing processes. The photographer can pour sandarac varnish on the metal plate and then hold it over a flame, or they can flow a shellac varnish across it and then let it set in a special toaster. The latter was the easier, more time-efficient technique we used in class.

The Tintype Photography Workshop Experience

With all of these steps, there are lots of opportunities for failure in tintype—especially if you’re a beginner. Luckily, we didn’t have to navigate the learning experience alone. On the first day of the workshop, which took place over two Saturdays, we broke into small groups and took turns posing, setting up, and taking portraits of each other in the Grey Studio, as well as preparing and developing plates in the darkroom—after watching two demos from Melf, of course. We soon started getting the hang of it, memorizing the steps and nailing down our process. We took multiple images of each person, trying to get the exposure time just right in the second or third tries. It was always so rewarding to see the images reveal themselves in the fixer. Just as we started feeling like we were getting the hang of it, it was time to wrap up. Before we left, we took a moment to pause and look at all of the images we had created while running back and forth between the studio and darkroom all day, laid out side by side; it felt incredible.

Tintype Photography Workshop

Tintype plates from the first day of the workshop

Tintype Photography Workshop 

My group's final tintype image

On the second day of the workshop, we finished our pictures from the previous week with the shellac varnish and dived right into making more. Some people paired off to do portraits while others went off on their own to try still-lifes—I was one of the latter. Between sharing stations and equipment with other classmates, getting the lighting and setup just right for my shots, and squeezing in a very short lunch break, I was able to produce two decent tintypes. At the end of the day, it was exciting to see the range of images our class created, from creative portraits to abstract still-lifes. After two Saturdays of making tintypes under Melf’s watchful eye, we left confident in our newfound skills.

Tintype Photography Workshop

Still-life from the second day of the workshop

Tintype Revival

Melf is surprised at how many people have become interested in tintype over the past few years, but thinks it might be because it’s trendy right now—though he doesn’t think tintype’s popularity will go away anytime soon. He knows people are drawn to it because it’s fun and tactile, and he’s eager to give his students their money’s worth with the most hands-on experience possible. 

Tintype also draws people in because it’s an intimate connection with photo-making and creates portraits unlike any other. Not only do tintypes have an antique look to them, but the process also gives people a certain look, stripping them down to a more raw, human level.

“A tintype can capture someone’s personality, the pluses and the flaws,” says Giles Clement, one modern tintype photographer. “I haven’t found another medium that captures as efficiently and honestly as a tintype.” Just look at some of the tintype portraits photographer Victoria Will has taken of celebrities, and try to identify who’s who—you’ll understand. The tintype medium also lends itself to imperfections that make the images even more otherworldly. This is something Melf admires. “We don’t need perfect photographs—we want interesting photographs,” he says.

Tintype Photography Workshop 

Tintype image by spring 2016 workshop students

All in all, the Tintype Photography Workshop is a reminder that outside of the immediacy of phones and DSLRs, different types of photographic processes exist and can offer valuable creative experiences. “I’m very pro alt photography and I think there’s a deep, deep, deep well of processes people can explore,” Melf says.

It was exciting to learn such an involved process so quickly as well as connect with the other people in the class and share our joint excitement for something new. For photographers, it’s a chance to slow down, immerse yourself in the process, and rethink your approach to photography. For everyone else, it’s a chance to try something very different and rethink the medium of photography itself. It’s an opportunity to learn, as photographer Patrick Demmons calls it, a “dance of silver and light.”