Anti-selfies: tintypes make a minor comeback and reveal a lot
February 12, 2014 11:27 PM   Subscribe

Wet-plate collodion photography April Kilcrease wrote this gorgeous combination of essay and reporting for The Magazine about tintypes and what these super-crisp, one-of-a-kind metal prints seemingly reveal. The emulsion is sensitive to blue light, which brings out wrinkles and capillaries, and thus shows what we perceive as more character in the face — more of the true nature of a person, seemingly. The photos are gorgeous, and April writes about how hard it is to accept them because they're unforgiving. You can't hide any imperfection, but that's also their advantage. She argues that a tintype is the anti-selfie because of the control you give up — and that they have a physical permanence. Not to mention the studio that have cropped up to make them take your portrait, rather than you snapping the picture yourself.
posted by GlennFleishman (7 comments total)

This post was deleted for the following reason: As you are editor and publisher of The Magazine, this is a self-link. -- taz

New thing on my ToDo list. I'd love to look in the mirror every day and have a worst-version of self to think on.
posted by ThrowbackDave at 12:26 AM on February 13, 2014

This at least partially explains why people look so weathered in old photographs.
posted by Kevin Street at 12:28 AM on February 13, 2014

So, a process that is slow and difficult and will end up making me look like shit. Too many of those in my life already.
posted by Segundus at 1:02 AM on February 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

I don't mind looking like shit in a photo if that's what's intended. I'd love one of these as much as I'd be horrified by it. Stern and thin-lipped and utterly weather-beaten. It couldn't be any worse than my driver's licence photo.
posted by h00py at 1:27 AM on February 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't mind looking like shit in a photo if that's what's intended. I'd love one of these as much as I'd be horrified by it. Stern and thin-lipped and utterly weather-beaten. It couldn't be any worse than my driver's licence photo.

I guess you're right, the long process of getting a shitty picture couldn't be worse than at the DMV, and at least -- unlike in my license photo -- the tintype wouldn't show me with a giant bright white glare shooting off of my forehead.

Not that an HD, blue version of "weathered" is all that much better, and I don't risk a fine for not getting it so...I'll still pass?

Anyway, kind of a dick move to hide the picture of the vain woman looking gorgeous and give her the one of her looking "awesome" though, huh? The gift isn't for the giver, dude. I see that going down roughly similar to: rolling off the starlet on the casting couch, lighting a cigarette, and telling her she'll make a good character actor. Ouch!
posted by rue72 at 1:44 AM on February 13, 2014

The studio owner thinks that digital photos are impermanent because they're not often printed, but this is getting it backwards. The intangibility of digital media is one of its greatest assets. It can be infinitely duplicated and won't degrade, making information much easier to preserve. I have mp3s and pictures that are nearing 20 years old, but I've lost so much traditional media over the years.
posted by gngstrMNKY at 1:53 AM on February 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

First: The dry tintype process, where gelatin, rather than collodion, is easier to work with. Yeah, not as fun, but it means you don't have to slam a wet plate into a camera and then expose, develop and fix before it dries. Oh, and you're not working with ether. Bonus, that.

Second: You'll want to practice with sheet film to learn how to handle the plates without exposing them inadvertently. Plus, modern B&W film chemistry is much easier to work with, which will give you the skills you need, because...

Third: …some of the chemicals in the earlier tintype processes are rather nasty, and the fixer in the classic process is potassium cyanide. LD50 is about 250 milligrams. Contact with pretty much any acid releases hydrogen cyanide, which boils at about room temperature and will kill you very easily. It's also rather explosive, but that's the minor hazard -- you need about 5% concentration in air to be explosive, and if you're in that room, you're dead well before you reach 5%. Really, you don't want to do that. Seriously. Avoid KCN unless you've had grad student level chemistry lab experience.

You can work with these safely, but you need to know how. Still, beats addling your brain with mercury like daguerreotypes will. Indeed, most of the old photo processes involved chemicals you don't want to play with casually. Processes based on Sodium Thiosulfate are much safer, about the worst thing you'll work in volume is the glacial acetic acid -- it's corrosive and flammable when it's concentrated that much. Once it's diluted, though, it becomes safer*. Silver nitrate will stain the hell out of your hands, though, and latex gloves are useless, use nitrile gloves.

Having been all "harrumph you kids will kill yourself", I'm told that this is an excellent guide to the process of making tintypes and ambrotypes (ambrotypes are on glass) and more importantly, how to get the raw materials.

Oh, and coating the plate evenly is both critical to a good image and a real pain in the ass. Expect to fail completely a few times, and then get lousy images a bunch until you get the steps down, but sometimes, failures lead to amazing images.

* Dilute it enough and you have something that's basically "distilled white vinegar."
posted by eriko at 2:08 AM on February 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

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