Tin Man: Breathing new life into photos with an old-fashioned process

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Almost all the photographs on Joseph Wyman Brown website are faces, people looking directly out of frame in a way that is both striking and slightly unsettling. He makes his photos using wet plate tintype, a process that hasn’t been widely used for nearly a century, and which produces contrast and detail not found in digital photography. of today – at least not without significant alterations. The photographer’s involvement in the artistic process of the tintype is obvious: look carefully around the jagged edges of each image and you can literally see his fingerprints etched in the emulsion.

Brown with the main camera he uses to take tintypes – taken with 35mm film.
Photo by Mitchell Clark/The Verge

“The biggest problem with the wet plate is that they have to watch,” Brown said in an interview with The edge. “You are present for at least a minute with me.” The process creates an intimacy between photographer and subject that simply doesn’t exist when shooting with a digital camera or phone because there isn’t enough time. But for Brown, the laborious and time-consuming process of making a tintype is one of the things that makes this art form so special.

Where a digital camera requires the photographer to insert a battery and an SD card, creating a tintype image involves dipping a metal plate in chemicals, loading it into a camera, and then using different products chemicals to develop an image on the plate. And, like Civil War-era photographers who traveled in boxcars making tintype images, Brown traveled from town to town and set up his mobile studio in beer halls, cafes and other venues. , where people can come and have their photos taken – although it travels in a Ford E-350 pickup truck instead of a horse-drawn buggy. We met him on a recent stop in Tennessee.

Brown’s pickup truck, parked on a street in Memphis.
Photo by Mitchell Clark/The Verge

In the age of near-instant photo sharing, it might seem odd that people would line up and go through the 10-12 minute process to get a tintype made. While Brown says he “doesn’t do anything really different from what they were doing over 160 years ago,” his way of working would not be particularly familiar to most photographers today.

The meaning of the art is evident when you see one of the images in person. Even as someone who has shot a lot of Polaroids and rolls of film, holding a piece of metal with a captured image on it and permanently lacquered is almost shocking. Looking at the metal plate, I saw what the camera was seeing at that exact moment. This effect was even stronger when Brown brought out some of the 19th century tintypes he had collected – it was a window into a world that now exists only in the history books.

Any photographer can take a few minutes to get to know the person they’re photographing, and Brown does just that. “It’s amazing the level of confidence he built in 20 seconds. Someone walks past the camera and thinks, ‘So this is just one shot, isn’t it?’ And, yes, that’s it. Let’s do something awesome. Slow photography like tintype requires uninterrupted attention for what can seem like an eternity in the age of instant gratification.

There are pros and cons to Brown’s approach, as well as the time and attention his process requires. One of her subjects received devastating news as he took a portrait of her and her husband. They wanted to take a picture afterwards, and he said so in the resulting tintype, where they sat in their grief for several minutes in front of a camera. “You can tell in their eyes that they’ve been robbed of something.”

But on the other hand, there’s no room for true spontaneity – Brown said it’s not really possible to capture someone laughing or bursting into tears, due to the long exposure times.

Despite the age of the tintype process, Brown isn’t the only one keeping the tradition alive. He learned the process from tintype artist Jason Snyder in Pittsburgh, where Brown is based. At the time, he was attending the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and was president of a photography club. He says someone showed him a tintype that Snyder had taken, and he couldn’t believe it was real.

“I contacted him to get the photo club out. And once I was there, once the process happened, it was like, holy shit. How can I be here every other day? ” he said. “And Jason was amazing. The guy is generous and kind. It’s like whenever he needed me or wanted me, or if I wanted to be in the studio, I could be. I never really asked questions. I was just in the studio every other day watching him do the process. He shared some resources with me; every question I ever asked, he just told me. Brown took his first tintype photo on June 29, 2013 – he remembers the exact date – a photo of his friend Beth.

He told me about John Coffer, who for decades was run a camp in Dundee, New York, where he teaches people the tintype process. There is also a non-profit educational association in New York that has a tintype studioand a few contemporary photographers have used the process to take pictures of things like celebrities and war.

Tintype is just one of many older art forms that artists are keeping alive in the digital age. Vinyl records have made a comeback, and some photographers have started trying their hand at 35mm or medium format after its steep decline in the early 2000s. There are even apps that replicate the experience of waiting a day before you can see the photos you’ve taken. Polaroid and other instant film have also seen a resurgence – you can buy Fujifilm’s Instax cameras at stores like Best Buy and Walmart (the latter also has at least a few rolls of film and disposable cameras in many of its stores).

There are undoubtedly people who choose the “old ways” because they don’t like the new technologies or think they are inferior in some way. Brown doesn’t shy away from digital cameras; his journey to becoming a professional photographer began during his deployment to Iraq, where he took pictures with a Nikon DSLR. “I became The Guy with the Camera,” he said, referring to a time-honoured role by anyone who reveals to friends, family or colleagues that they know how to use something more advanced than a point-and-shoot or the camera on their phone.

He also recently did his first digital shoot in years, saying he didn’t just want to do the same thing over and over again. As an artist, he sometimes wants to change things up, whether it’s taking digital photos, changing the way he lights his tintypes, or even non-photographic things like starting a podcast. “I think it’s phenomenal because for the first time in my photography career, I’ve found a style where people look at my work and could actually say, ‘Hey, that’s Joe Brown.’ And that’s great. But at the same time, he adds, he worries that keeping things fresh by trying out new looks or techniques will make his work less recognizable.

He says there is a double-edged sword when it comes to tintypes. With many types of photography, there is at least some level of reproducibility. Digital images can be copied over and over again; you can make prints using a 35mm negative. But you cannot copy a tintype. You can capture an image of it, but seeing a digital version is not the same as holding the metal plate in your hand. “Somehow I feel like I have nothing to show for all my hard work,” he said.

Nevertheless, Brown says he always tries to improve his images. “Ultimately, there is no secret in tintype photography. It has been around for over 160 years. And while Brown doesn’t think he’ll ever truly master the imprecise process of tintype photography, he says he doesn’t want to move on to another type of photography until he’s sure he can pull it off. a photo anytime, in any condition. .

Brown, recording a video from his bed with his iPhone 13 Pro.
Photo by Mitchell Clark/The Verge

Brown does not completely avoid modern photography. He has a side project where he takes multiple one-second video clips every day of the year, then compiles them to form a sort of story video — mostly so he can show his grandmother what he’s up to, he says. Last year he did it using an 8mm film camera. “I’ll never do it again,” he laughs. He estimated that the project cost around $1,700 from purchase to film development. “My phone is free to use.”

Yet there is undeniably something fascinating about someone who forgoes the convenience that modern technology offers and still creates something amazing. As Brown said, “I share the best representation of tintype. But I also want to be clear to people, this is a process from the late 1800s. It’s not perfect.

Perhaps this imperfection is one of the things that drives people to experiment with old ways, to create new art with sometimes old techniques. There is absolute value in how digital creation can make things more accessible and convenient for everyone. But it is also important to see blurry edges and errors from time to time – fingerprints along the frame.

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