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  • Writer's pictureBrian Pierson

Capturing the Past: The Rise and Fall of Tintype Photography

Tintype photography refers to photographic images produced directly onto thin iron sheets that are coated with a dark lacquer or enamel. The tintype process was one of the most widely used photographic processes during the latter half of the 19th century.

Tintypes were first introduced in the 1850s as a less expensive and faster alternative to daguerreotypes and ambrotypes, which were photographic images on silver-plated copper and glass respectively. The tintype gained popularity during the American Civil War when soldiers would have their portraits taken as tintypes to be sent home to their families. Tintypes remained widely used for several decades until declining in the early 1900s with the rise of paper prints.

While the tintype was eventually superseded by more advanced photographic processes, it left a unique artistic legacy. The tintype's distinct matte appearance and metallic sheen led to a revival as an art form decades after its initial decline. Tintypes remain appreciated today for their vintage look and ability to evoke a sense of nostalgia for the 19th century.

The tintype photographic process was invented in the 1850s as an inexpensive alternative to the daguerreotype, ambrotype, and other early photographic methods. It was part of a long history of photographic experimentation and innovation.

The origins of tintype can be traced back to early experiments by photographic pioneers like Nicéphore Niépce and Louis Daguerre in the 1820s and 1830s to capture permanent images using light sensitive chemicals coated on metal plates. Niépce created one of the earliest surviving photographs in 1826 using a pewter plate coated in bitumen of Judea. Daguerre went on to develop the daguerreotype process in 1839 using silver coated copper plates. The resulting images were stunning but the process was expensive and complex.

In the early 1850s, Frederick Scott Archer invented the wet plate collodion process which allowed high quality negatives to be produced on glass. This process was adopted by both professional and amateur photographers but the glass negatives were relatively expensive and fragile. It spurred experiments to find cheaper and more durable alternatives.

By 1856, metal plates coated in dark lacquered iron were being used to produce affordable direct positive photographs known as melainotypes or tintypes. Tin was cheaper than silver or copper and the dark lacquered iron provided a smooth black background. The tintype process was patented in 1856 by Hamilton Smith in the United States and quickly grew in popularity for its simplicity, speed, and low cost compared to previous photographic methods. It provided easy access to personal portraiture even for those who could not afford a professional daguerreotype sitting.

The tintype process rose in popularity in the 1850s and 1860s for several key reasons. Compared to daguerreotypes, tintypes were faster to produce, more durable, and much cheaper per image. This made them ideal for portrait photography studios catering to the middle and lower classes who wanted an affordable keepsake photo. The tintype's durability also made it well-suited for documenting major events like the American Civil War. Soldiers and families embraced the tintype for capturing images to carry into battle or send back home.

Tintypes became a boom industry in cities and traveling photography studios alike. The portable nature of the tintype process allowed photographers to set up makeshift studios and quickly produce portraits on thin metal plates wherever demand arose. From busy city centers to the American frontier, tintypes provided an accessible way for people to have their photo taken. Their low cost and durability made them popular with soldiers, working class families, and pioneers. The tintype bridged portraiture and documentation, providing intimate glimpses into everyday life during a transformative era of American history.

## American Civil War

The American Civil War from 1861-1865 represented the peak of tintype photography's popularity and use. Tintype photographs became widely used by soldiers in the war for affordable portraits to send to loved ones back home. Both Union and Confederate soldiers made use of tintype photographers who traveled and set up mobile studios near encampments. Soldiers would line up to have their portraits taken before going off to battle. Tintype photos of individual soldiers as well as group portraits were common. Beyond portraits, tintypes were also used for battlefield photography to document the war. Photographers like Alexander Gardner extensively documented the aftermath of battles, producing grisly images of dead soldiers. While early war images sometimes romanticized soldiers heading gallantly into battle, later tintypes presented the grim realities of war's effects. The tintype photographic process was uniquely well-suited for use by Civil War photographers thanks to its ease and speed of development, relatively low cost, and durability compared to other mediums. It became an essential part of documenting the lives and experiences of Civil War soldiers and events. The tintypes produced during the war represent both an artistic achievement and an invaluable historical record.

The tintype's popularity began to decline in the 1860s and 1870s as easier and cheaper photographic processes were introduced. The tintype required a relatively long exposure time of 10-20 seconds, making it difficult to capture images of moving subjects.

The ambrotype, introduced in the 1850s, provided a faster alternative. Like the tintype, it utilized the wet plate collodion process but on glass negatives instead of metal. This allowed for exposure times under 5 seconds. The ambrotype's faster process and ability to capture motion made it more appealing for portraiture.

The spread of cartes de visite in the late 1850s also drew business away from tintype photographers. These small paper photographs mounted on cards were relatively inexpensive to reproduce in multiples, allowing them to be traded and collected in albums. Tintypes could not be reproduced and only existed as a single image.

The convenience and affordability of cartes de visite meant average people could have multiple portraits of themselves and family members. Tintypes became less common for personal portraiture as the middle class preferred the cartes de visite format.

The introduction of gelatin silver dry plate negatives in the 1870s marked the true decline of the wet plate process and tintypes. Dry plates were pre-coated with light sensitive silver halides suspended in gelatin. This eliminated the messy and time consuming wet plate process, allowing for negatives that were ready to load into cameras.

With no complex chemical preparation needed, dry plates also enabled much shorter exposure times. This finally allowed portrait photographers to capture clear images of moving subjects with only 1-2 seconds of exposure. The convenience and technical advantages of dry plate negatives surpassed both tintypes and ambrotypes in popularity.

While tintypes remained in limited use for some decades, by the 1880s they were essentially obsolete for mainstream photography. The majority of professional portrait studios had shifted to using the faster and more efficient dry plate negatives. The distinctive tintype format fell out of favor as simpler, quicker photographic methods became widespread.

## Artistic Tintype Revival

In the early 21st century, tintype photography experienced a revival among certain photographers seeking to recreate the antique, nostalgic look of the process. While it had faded from mainstream use, tintype never fully disappeared. A small number of photographers had continued using the technique over the decades for artistic purposes.

This renewed interest was especially prominent in the fine art photography community. Contemporary tintype photographers like [Christopher James](, [France Scully Osterman](, and [Lance Keimig]( helped lead the revival of tintype as an alternative process. Their striking tintype portraiture and still life images evoke the style and period of early photography.

For these modern tintypists, the tintype process offers a hands-on, tangible photographic experience. Each tintype print is entirely unique, unable to be digitally replicated. The chemical process lends an ethereal, dream-like mood. So while tintype fell out of mainstream use long ago, its distinctive look and retro charm continue inspiring photographic artists today.

Soapy Smith, Tintype  photo, 1898, Jefferson smith, Large white hat, Bearded man, black and white photo.
Soapy Smith

Tintype photography requires just a few key materials and steps:

- Tin or aluminum sheets

- Silver nitrate or emulsion

- Collodion - a flammable solution that includes guncotton, ether and alcohol

- Darkroom or changing tent

- Camera and lens

- Tripod

- Processing trays and tongs

- Fixer solution like sodium thiosulfate

- Varnish

1. Prepare the plate - Clean the metal plate, apply collodion and sensitize it with silver nitrate. This must be done right before exposure while the plate is still wet.

2. Take the photo - Load the prepared plate into the camera, expose it and develop the latent image. This must be done before the plate dries.

3. Develop the image - Pour developer over the plate to reveal the negative image. Then fix and wash the plate.

4. Varnish for protection - Once dried, the image needs to be varnished to protect and seal it.

5. Insert into case - The fragile plate is housed in a protective case for viewing.

The wet plate process requires quick work and dexterous handling to prepare, expose and develop the image before the collodion dries. But it produces a unique direct positive image on metal.

Tintypes have some distinctive qualities that set them apart from other photographic processes. Here are some of the most notable characteristics of tintype photographs:

- Tintypes have a dark, mirrored appearance caused by the iron substrate. This gives them a glossy look different from paper photographs.

- The images often exhibit a great deal of contrast between dark and light areas. Shadows appear very dark while highlights are washed out. Mid-tones tend to be muted.

- The images have a shallow depth of field, meaning only a small portion of the photo is in focus while the foreground and background are softly blurred.

- Tintypes were most commonly produced as portraits with a sepia, brownish tone. Landscapes and still lifes were less common but exhibit a similar coloration.

- Due to the exposure time required, subjects needed to stay very still. Any motion is captured as a blur.

- Tintypes were usually housed in folding cases or paper mats/sleeves specific to their size. This protected the fragile iron plates.

- The thin iron sheets were prone to damage over time. Few tintypes survive today without signs of aging like rust, scratches, dents, etc.

- The most common size was the 2.5 x 3.5 inch tintype, a "gem" size easily housed in a pocket case. Larger plates were also produced.

- Tintypes were often presented in elaborate Victorian-style frames or lockets for wearing, or mounted in albums.

- Unlike other photographs, tintypes are one-of-a-kind images. The process does not allow for multiple prints from a negative.

Tintype photography was pioneered and popularized by several influential photographers in the 19th century. Some of the most well-known tintype photographers include:

Alexander Hesler - A prominent photographer based in Chicago, Hesler took distinctive tintype portraits of major figures like Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman. His images provide an intimate look into his famous subjects.

John Coffer - Based in New York, Coffer was an innovative tintype photographer who patented a new method of creating images on thin iron plates in 1856. This helped make tintypes easier to produce.

Lucky Luke - A photographer known for his iconic tintype portraits of Wild West figures, outlaws, and lawmen in the 1860s-1880s. Luke travelled widely capturing Western folklore figures before their legends were mythologized.

Kilburn Brothers - This Littleton, New Hampshire studio patented the first mass-production method for tintypes in 1863. They used interchangeable backgrounds and accessories to efficiently produce tintype portraits on demand. The Kilburn studio became one of the most prolific tintype businesses.

Bennett's Bookbindery - Located in New York, this studio focused on creating collectible tintypes in themed albums. Their ornately designed and bound photo albums showcased tintype images like carte de visites. They targeted upscale consumers.

Elmer Chancellor - An itinerant photographer based in Iowa, Chancellor became known for his expressive hand-colored tintypes using photographic oils. His unique painting method brought vivid hues to tintype portraits.

The work of these innovative tintype photographers helped establish and expand the medium during the 19th century. Their technical developments and artistic techniques left a lasting imprint on the history of photography.

The tintype photographic process has a unique and important legacy in the history of photography. Though it was only widely used for about 20 years, it played a pivotal role in making personal photography affordable and accessible to the masses. During the 1860s, millions of tintype portraits were produced in the United States and allowed people from all walks of life to preserve their own likeness. This accessibility helped photography become an integral part of everyday life and culture.

Tintype's low cost and immediacy made it hugely popular with soldiers during the American Civil War. For many soldiers, tintypes were the only photographic keepsakes they had to remember their military service and send to loved ones back home. Tintypes served an important documentary role in capturing images of the War that could be rapidly produced in field studios near battlefronts.

While tintypes faded from mainstream use in the late 19th century, they have seen a revival among fine art photographers drawn to the unique aesthetic. Tintypes are appreciated for their dreamlike, ethereal monochrome look and irregularities caused by the chemical process. Their handmade imperfection lends them an expressive, emotional quality. Though a slow, laborious process compared to digital photography, tintype continues to have an artistic following today. Contemporary tintype artists keep the historic practice alive and renew its message that everyone's portrait deserves to be immortalized.

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