History on an Iron Plate: the Modern Tintype Photograph

For all the history buffs out there, or just for anyone wondering what came before Instagram, we thought you’d really enjoy this short from filmmaker Matt Morris. It introduces us to Harry Taylor, an American photographer who has resurrected the antique 19th century art of tintype:

Deeply affected by his mother’s illness (she was hospital-bound with the cancer which would eventually take her life), and with a general disenchantment with digital workflow, Taylor became absorbed with the prototypical photo process, which enjoyed the height of its success during the American Civil War (1861-1865), when the durable iron plates were favoured over their delicate glass counterparts. These plates were covered with a light-sensitive silver-halide emulsion and exposed using one of the massive view cameras featured in the video.

Tintypes could also be produced relatively quickly; because their background was black instead of white, a negative image cast on it ended up appearing as if it were positive. This meant that the image would look as it should immediately out of the camera, with no need for transfer. And if you need another reason to get into these old processes, just take a look at the exquisite monster of a camera that Taylor uses for his work.

tintype antique photography

Many people wonder what relevance these archaic technologies have to us today. Clearly their commercial appeal has diminished to almost nothing, save the possibility of novelty. Taylor argues that it is for exactly this reason that it is essential that these techniques be kept alive – as a force of slowness, of meditation and focus, to contrast the Twitter and 24-hour news society that we live in. Art should not be efficient, or streamlined, and the labour put into every image not only enriches the photos, but the photographer, too.

tintype antique photography

“I think the perfection that you get with digital is so easy, you can’t help but take it for granted. With the antique process, the process itself speaks to the image, and it will make things happen; flaws—if your collodion is old, you know, you might have extreme ridges. I don’t spot tone this stuff anymore, I like it. I think it’s kinda—it shows it’s real.”

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One Comment

  1. Ivy Bigbee says:

    Dear Matt Morris,
    You’re drawn to what was before: from your mother’s death , and to the somewhat death of tintypes, but you seem to be the Dorian Gray of the process: keeping the process young and relevant to today’s ideals.
    Thank you for such a lovely and gracile feature on a process all the quickly-gratified Instagrammers lose out on when they compose, snap, and filter.
    My first commission while still an undergrad was to photograph a variety of differing worship sites. The commission was financed by a dead person: Ann Frank, whose traveling exhibition drew enough support to finance my work. I can recall carting around a view camera, and while in inner city areas, I carried a starter pistol to brandish, should I feel threatened.
    Once under the dark cloth, however, all fears vanished, and the images I sought were my Mecca, where there were no thought sof crime or the gritty surrounds.
    Congrats on this gracile and beautiful, yet honest and forthright portrayal.. This vid should be shown to every photo student or enthusiast who gets off on snapping candids and transmogrifying them with a few cheap Instagram tricks. Your wife (?)/model seems to “get it,” as well.
    Bon mots to you.both. Your tintypes cause me to miss my view camera and those zen-like days of field work.

    Ivy Bigbee

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