Time travel with tintypes — photographer creates portraits with 19th century methods
Inside a barn next to a covered wagon, a man in an apron adjusts a large camera on a tripod and takes a photograph of a family waiting patiently under the lights. Taking the plate out of the camera, the man ducks inside a dark tent for the delicate processing of the photo. Emerging minutes later, he pours a solution into a tray with the plate, filling the barn with the scent of ether. After he coats the plate and holds it over a flame, an image on the metal emerges — a beaming family. For them, the 10-minute wait was worth it — the photographer hands the family a one-of-a-kind portrait to take home.
This isn’t a scene from 1850, but it easily could be. In today’s era of selfies and Photoshop, Winter Park photographer Tyler Tomasello offers portraits that take the viewer back in time to photography’s roots. Tomasello brought 19th century tintype photography to visitors at Cozens Ranch Museum Oct. 2. Families lined up outside as children played in the covered wagon, anticipating their unique portrait. They were happy to wait. Tomasello remarked the medium of tintype encourages patience in people, even as the outside world rushes around them.
In between shooting photos and carefully processing the plates, Tomasello explained why he was drawn to this historic, hypersensitive process, rather than modern methods.
“It’s a way to preserve history and challenge yourself as well, because it’s such an imperfect style of photography, even if you’re doing it right,” he said. “But that’s the beauty of the photo.”
Tintype (named after the metal plate’s “tinny” feel) was invented in the 1850s. Photographers needed a large camera, a metal plate, a dark room, chemicals and proper lighting to develop the image.
The process sounds arduous by today’s standards, when anyone can whip out their phone for a shot. But in the 1800s, tintype was the fastest, most affordable, way to take a photograph. The entire chemical process took about 15 minutes. With it, for the first time, people could receive their photos right after they were taken. Since tintypes were made on metal plate rather than a glass one, they were also more durable than the other photos of the day.
As tintypes took off in popularity, families had their photos taken at fairs or at home by traveling photographers. Because of its mobility, photographers could capture action for the first time. They traveled west in covered wagons to photograph cowboys and documented the bloodshed on Civil War battlefields.
Like his predecessors, Tomasello has traveled across the country, taking tintypes of diverse landscapes and people from California to Vermont.
Before immersing himself in tintype, Tomesello worked as a photographer for Sky-Hi News. The photojournalism field eventually took him to all corners of the world — from documenting protests at Denver’s capitol building, to the eye of a hurricane in Florida, to the war-ravaged streets of Afghanistan.
“I saw somebody doing (tintype photography) along my travels and I thought it was really cool,” he said. “I started researching it and realized there’s not a lot of information about it.”
Tomasello is a self-taught tintype photographer. Very few in-person classes or workshops exist on this eclectic art.
“I started reading a bunch of old books. That’s how I figured it out, and just tons of trial and error,” he said. “As far as I know, there’s 3,000 people in the world that do this, so it’s pretty niche kind of thing. There’s actually only two people in the country that make the chemicals for this process, so if something happens to them … it’s going to be very interesting.”
Photographers need a strong grasp of chemistry, or they could create a dangerous chemical concoction. Tomasello has all the tools and knowledge he needs to carry on the tradition, but the process is finicky.
“A lot of these chemicals are live, like a kombucha or something. So as the temperature goes up throughout the day, I’ve got to put ice in there, or check my PH balance, add certain things or subtract certain things,” Tomasello said. “It’s constantly changing … it’s a constant chemistry experiment inside that tent.”
Tomasello must place all of his concentration on the image he’s working on. If he makes a mistake, he can’t hit a delete button on the camera to try again.
“There’s more failure than success, for sure. But that also teaches you a lot in life, about how to handle that kind of stuff,” he said.
Many factors are at play in a delicate balance; if one factor is off, the image will have errors. But the risk is part of why Tomasello likes it.
“I was doing a lot of conflict zone reporting in Afghanistan and Myanmar, and this was a nice change of pace obviously. But it was also a similar familiar feeling I got from doing this,” he said. “You get this same anxiety wondering if it’s going to work or come out. The success is kind of the same feeling too when you get to the end. You’re like, ‘Yes, I did it!’”
Mistakes are what make each image authentic and unique. A photographer is also unable produce multiple prints from the same image like they can with digital images.
“I could take a photo of these photos and (filter it) but it still doesn’t look the same as the original,” Tomasello said. “Every single one is going to have something wrong with it if you look at it, and that’s what I really, really like about it. The imperfections are what makes it perfect.”
No negatives are made from this analog method, meaning every tintype is one-of-a-kind.
“I don’t get to keep anything I make; I have to give it away every time. So this also teaches you what you need and don’t need in life,” said Tomasello, adding his thoughts on how his creations will outlive him. “I think that’s part of the beauty as well.”
As he covers each plate in the liquid and holds it up to the light, customers gather around to peek at art developing in front of their eyes. Families light up as he passes them the black-and-white photo.
Twenty-five percent of Tomasello’s portrait sales went back to Cozens Ranch Museum. Funds will help the museum construct a new roof to help with the protection of artifacts.
After customers paid for their portraits, they stepped inside the museum to peruse tintypes from the 1800s. Faces from Grand County’s past gazed back at them — families, war veterans, farmers and Native Americans. Thanks to Tomasello carrying on the tradition, future generations will look back at 2020s tintypes and see newer history preserved for posterity.
Tomasello will be offer tintype portraits in Winter Park at the Lavender Elephant’s closing party on Oct. 13 at 5 p.m. at 78415 U.S. Highway 40 #204. He will also be in Granby at The Bowerbird’s Den, located at 295 E. Agate Ave., on Oct. 28 during Trick or Treat Main Street.
“I use pretty much the same chemicals they used back then. I start with collodion, which is a mixture of gun cotton, alcohol, salt and ether. Then I dip it into a tank of silver nitrate, which is a combination of nitric acid and silver bars melted together. While it’s in there, a chemical reaction happens. That creates a new chemical, which is silver iodide. So it takes the salt from the original chemical and silver from the second chemical. They combine to create a light-sensitive chemical, which is silver iodide. From there, I take a picture and develop it like a normal photograph, and I put it in a fixer, which dissolves all the excess silver. And then I cover it with a varnish and cook it on just to keep it dry.”
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