Back in time, to the year 1851. Photography had been introduced twelve years earlier and although enormously popular, it was a terrible hassle. Costs were high, exposure times long, and the result often a disappointment. Then British inventor Frederick Scott Archer (1813 – 1857) discovered collodion as a base for light sensitive silver nitrate, which is necessary for any photo. Collodion had been around since 1846 when people started using it to cover wounds. It is gun cotton – aka nitrocellulose – mixed with alcohol and ether. Yup, ether! It stinks like hell and if you’re not careful you pass out. But in the 19th century they were thrilled, it had some huge advantages over the older procedures, in particular regarding sharpness and exposure times. Still, it is a complicated and demanding system: first you have to pour the collodion, a goopy, syrupy fluid, thinly and evenly on a (glass-) plate, which you then immediately have to immerse into the silver nitrate. Then that light sensitive stuff has to be exposed – immediately. After that the plate has to go into the developer immediately, and then development has to be halted with a bucket load of water. Immediately. When the collodion dries, it loses it’s light sensitivity, hence the name Wet Plate photography. It’s pretty cumbersome in the studio, on location it borders on madness. In the beginning they dragged along tents and wagons, and in outdoor scenes you pretty much always see water in some shape or form. On top of that, the prints were contact prints – if you wanted half decent sizes, you’d have to bring accordingly large equipment and material. Glass was used for the plates so that posed a breaking risk. You could, and can, also use tin (or nowadays aluminium) plates: Khadija Saye’s tintypes. But then you don’t have negatives, so no reproductions. One last but important drawback: collodion is combustible, and what’s worse, explosive. It has blown up many darkrooms and unfortunately many photographers, too.
Tintype, portrait of Taqulittuq and Ipirvik, aka Tookoolito and Ebierbing, alias Hannah and Joe. They were an Inuit couple who in the 1860’s worked as guides and interpreters for British and American expeditions to the Arctic. In a way they were lucky to be able to earn a living that way – during their initial travels they were exhibited . . . horrific. Although they did dine at Windsor Castle then, as guests of Queen Victoria.
Roger Fenton’s mobile darkroom, 1855. This is how he shlepped all around the Crimean War. The man on the wagon is his assistant Marcus Sparling.
Tintype from ca. 1890. Slightly odd focus here: his face is a little blurred, his checked suit on the other hand . . . sharp as a knife! Still, a beautiful picture. Of course it’s a beautiful guy, too.
This is a portrait of Billy the Kid, one of the legendary outlaws of the Wild West. The tintype looks rather worse for wear, but it is nothing compared to Billy’s fate – he was murdered by his old friend and partner in crime.
Your author, and friend and colleague Sylvia Lockhart (check out her website below). These tintypes were made during a wonderful Wet Plate workshop by Daniel Barter (check out his website below, too). As you can tell from all the blobs, the pouring of the collodion was, shall we say, uneven? It’s more difficult than you’d think. The black edges are beaten raw egg, applied with a Q-tip to prevent the collodion dripping off the plate.