Tintypes with Ashley Jennings
If you were to make your way into a certain studio on a certain Sunday afternoon, you might find six artists in one room with at least two bottles of toxic chemicals.
The artists are here to make photographs on thin 4x5 inch sheets of metal. The photos they’ll make are incredibly sharp - nearly grainless - and the process they’ll use is a century and a half old.
The wetplate collodion process came about in 1851 to replace the daguerreotype, which was the first successful method of making photographs, using silver iodide and mercury vapor. Now, with film, an image can be captured and subsequently stored for years before being developed or printed. The wetplate collodion process that yields tintypes, on the other hand, requires that the given surface (whether it be tin, aluminum, glass, or another non-porous surface) be coated with chemicals immediately before being exposed to light, while still wet, and be developed immediately after.
Ashley Jennings of Jailhouse Studios is in charge of today's tintype workshop. “I started primarily shooting film eight years ago in an effort to slow down, refine my understanding of the mechanics of photography, and to think more about each image I took. When I discovered tintypes, it became clear that this process was a natural extension of those goals." Ashley, Ray Bidegain, and Katharine T. Jacobs collectively make up Alchemy Tintype, a "collaborative artistic endeavor" that works to share their passion for the process.
Ashley peels away a protective layer of plastic from the plate of aluminum on which she’s chosen to make her photo (the plastic gives us a dust-free surface, because otherwise, an inconveniently-placed speck of dust might cause the image to simply slide off of the plate). A shot glass of collodion poured from a whiskey bottle full of the stuff (which boils at 95 degrees) sits in front of her. Holding the plate by one corner, she pours the liquid over the surface, careful not to coat any single area more than once. Once its been coated, she slides the plate into a tank of silver nitrate, waits four minutes, and pulls out a light-sensitive, ready-to-be-exposed plate.
Ashley places the tintype-to-be into an adapted film holder and walks into the studio to make her exposure. She slides the holder firmly into place on the back of the 4x5 camera, pulls the dark slide, tells her subject to look into the lens, cocks the shutter, and presses the release. The studio lights flash and the subject blinks. Ashley replaces the dark slide and carries the film holder carefully back into the darkroom.
“I fell in love with wetplate collodion, partially, for the same reasons I fell in love with polaroid. The magic of watching an image emerge in a tangible way has never gotten old for me: watching a work of art emerge makes me feel a connection to photography that no other process does.”
A red light looks on as she holds her plate by the corner and pours developer over the rectangle, balancing a small puddle back and forth atop the aluminum until a ghostly image begins to appear. At this point, she places the plate into the tray of fixer, where the faint traces of a subject solidify and darken until the portrait is complete.
It’s the first plate of the day, so it’s not perfect. The top left corner is a bit fogged. The challenge now is to find out what went wrong.
“I love the work that goes into this process. I love that it forces me to troubleshoot problems I’ve never encountered before, and it motivates me to see my technique continually improve. I have control of virtually all aspects of this process from start to finish, and that responsibility and challenge makes it dear to me. This process makes me feel connected to the pioneers of early photographic processes.”
Along with all of the usual factors that go into making an analog photo, like properly exposing, developing, fixing, and washing (long enough, but not too long), there are a myriad of additional potential problems that can occur throughout the wetplate collodion process.
First off, even just properly exposing the image is much more difficult than when using film. It takes a lot of light. A lot. The coated plate can be rated at something like 0.5 ISO, meaning it might demand more than a minute of exposure in shade. It also reacts differently to different light and reflected colors: UV light is best; red tones come out much darker than in real life and blues come out very bright. What I’m trying to say is that there is absolutely no way to meter for a wetplate collodion exposure. Even with Ashley and Ray's experience and intuition, achieving a well-exposed plate is a matter of trial and error.
Ashley suspects that the fogging we’ve encountered is more likely due to some problem other than improper exposure. Perhaps the collodion wasn’t poured carefully enough, causing the plate to be unevenly coated. Perhaps the plate dried, just a bit, while we were setting up the shot. So, back to the darkroom, to try again.
After another exposed plate or three, the verdict is reached. One of the studio lights was just a touch too close to the camera and was shining light directly into the lens. Light moved, problem solved.
“I find the reaction people have to their tintype portraits to be really gratifying. We live in the age of photoshop and instagram filters, wherein photos of oneself are dime a dozen. The ability to make an honest, one-of-a-kind image out of silver and to invite someone to watch it develop makes what I do feel worthwhile. Making a blank plate into a precious metallic work of art is why we chose the name Alchemy Tintype for our wetplate venture.”
The next plate to float back and forth in the tray of fixer is incredible. The background is clear (no more fogging), the subject - a man - is sharp and full of texture and contrast. There is a gleam in his eyes, which wasn’t there before the bright instantaneous flash of the studio lights. The photograph is timeless; not a single detail implies that it was made nearly 170 years after the process itself was invented.
Article and photographs (shot on Ilford HP5 35mm) by Mary Thomas