As if in response to the Insta-everything, selfie-on-the-go zeitgeist, there’s a 150-year-old photo process that’s currently enjoying a revival of sorts: the wet-plate collodion, better known as the tintype. It’s everything modern photography isn’t: fast, easy and reproducible. And that seems to be the major selling point for the growing ranks of tintype aficionados. Outline photographer Victoria Will made a splash at Sundance with her series of movie stars shot with this process.
The process in a nutshell is this: you pour a fluid over a small sheet of metal, usually aluminum (the tin of “tintype” is a misnomer). That fluid acts as a substrate to the light-sensitive silver concoction that’s applied next. In essence, you’re making your own film, though it’s on metal instead of acetate. That sensitized piece of metal is then placed in the camera, exposed, and developed in a process very familiar to anyone with experience in a darkroom.
Because the “film” has an effective ISO rating of about .5, exposures have to be either very long or blasted with strobes. You’ve seen Civil War tintypes of posing soldiers—those images probably took 8 to 10 minutes to capture, so the subjects had metal prongs holding their heads still. Now you know why no one was smiling for the birdie back then.
Question: do you think your latest Instagram masterpiece will stand the true test of time? I mean, will the technology to view your work be available in the year 2114? Even if you print your work, inks fade and paper curls. Tintypes don’t care what year it is. A reasonably well-cared for tintype will last centuries. And each one is a unique object.