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  • Writer's pictureBrian Pierson

The Curious Case of Tintype Photography: How a 19th Century Camera Technique Made an Unlikely Comeback

Introduction to Tintype Photography

Tintype photography is a photographic process that involves creating a direct positive image on a thin iron sheet coated with a dark lacquer. Tintypes first gained popularity in the 1850s and were most widely used in the 1860s and 1870s. The tintype process produced a positive image directly onto the iron support, rather than requiring the two-step process of creating a negative and then a positive print like other early photographic methods.

Tintype photographs have a distinctive shiny appearance and are sometimes casually referred to as "tin photos." The images are usually portraits and reproductions are completely unique, since each image is a direct positive print that exists as a single original artifact. No photographic negatives were used. At the peak of their popularity from the 1860s to the late 19th century, tintypes were an easy and inexpensive way for both photographers and the public to produce casual portraits that were more accessible at the time than traditional painted portraits.

Rise of Tintype Photography

Tintype photography was invented in the 1850s as a cheaper and more convenient alternative to the daguerreotype, which was the dominant photographic process at the time. The tintype, also known as a ferrotype, used a thin sheet of iron coated in black lacquer rather than silver-plated copper which was used for daguerreotypes. This made the tintype process much less expensive, enabling a new class of itinerant photographers to set up mobile studios and offer portraits at a reasonable cost.

Whereas daguerreotypes were primarily commissioned by the upper classes, tintype photography became a popular way for common working-class people to have affordable portraits made. The portable nature of the process also allowed photographers to travel and quickly produce images on-site, documenting everyday life and people across America in the early days of photography. Tintype photographers set up their traveling studios at carnivals, circuses, and tourist sites to capture the public’s interest. The tintype's small size, durability, and relatively low cost made it easy for millions of Americans to have their photograph taken for the first time.


tintype, black and white photo of a small bottle
Tiny Bottle

Advantages Over Early Photography

Tintype photography offered several key advantages over earlier photographic processes that contributed to its popularity in the mid-19th century. Compared to daguerreotypes, which had exposure times of several minutes, tintypes could be exposed much faster, in just a few seconds. This allowed portraits to be made without the need for head clamps to keep subjects still for a prolonged period. Additionally, tintypes were printed on thin iron sheets coated with a dark lacquer, making them far more durable than paper prints which were fragile and prone to fading.

But perhaps the tintype's most distinctive advantage was its handmade, one-of-a-kind appearance. Each tintype was an original direct positive print, unable to be duplicated unlike other prints made from film negatives. No two looked exactly alike due to the manual process of coating, exposing, and developing each plate. This gave tintypes a raw, organic aesthetic that differentiated them from the polish of studio portraits at the time. Their imperfections and flaws became part of their artistic charm. The unique brightness and detail from the metallic iron support was also warmly received by photographers and patrons drawn to the medium's hand-crafted allure.

Prominence During the Civil War Era

Tintype photography reached the height of popularity during the American Civil War in the 1860s. The tintype process became the main form of photography used during the war, allowing soldiers to have portable portraits captured of themselves to carry into battle. Unlike previous photographic processes that required long exposure times, the tintype method could produce a negative and hand-tinted positive print within a few minutes. This made it well-suited for capturing portraits in camp and in the thick of battlefield action. Tintype photographers followed along with the troops, documenting infantrymen and officers. Their work provided both a source of income and a vital service to the soldiers, many of whom wanted portraits to leave with loved ones in case they didn't return from battle. These on-the-scene photographers captured dramatic tintype images of camp life, artillery batteries, troop formations, and the aftermath of combat on the front lines. The visceral tintype prints became an iconic representation of the Civil War experience.

After the invention of the lighter and more convenient cartes de visite format around 1860, tintype's popularity began to decline. But it remained the photograph medium of choice for common soldiers throughout the war due to its affordability and ability to quickly render the horrors of the battlefield. The striking tintype portraits and scenes from this era now represent an invaluable visual account of the Civil War and a period when the medium was most prolific.

Decline in the Early 20th Century

Tintype photography began to decline in the early 20th century with the introduction of easier negative-based photography processes like gelatin silver prints. These new processes allowed for mass production and distribution of prints, compared to the "one-off" nature of tintypes.

Additionally, the invention of cheap, easy-to-use cameras like the Brownie allowed anyone to take casual snapshots. Tintype photos required a professional photographer and more effort to produce a single image. As a result, preferences shifted to the convenience and accessibility of glossy gelatin silver prints that could be easily reproduced.

Tintypes were viewed as old-fashioned compared to the more modern prints available. The cumbersome process and singular nature of each tintype image did not align with consumer desire for multiple prints to share and convenience. So while tintypes remained popular through the late 19th century, they rapidly declined as new photographic technology emerged in the 20th century.

Nostalgic Revival and Artistic Appeal

Tintype photography began a nostalgic revival in the 1970s and 1980s as interest grew for vintage photographic processes. This coincided with a renewed popularity of the late 19th century aesthetic in fashion, decor, and design. Tintypes offered a way to create antique-looking photos to fit in with the vintage trend. The tintype's imperfections and dream-like quality were seen as artistic benefits rather than technical drawbacks. This differentiated tintypes from the clinical precision of modern photography.

The tintype process was adopted by fine art photographers who appreciated its hands-on approach and one-of-a-kind results. Notable photographers like Sally Mann added an aura of artistic legitimacy to a technique once seen as obsolete. The process allowed for creative experimentation with homemade emulsions and alternative development techniques. Workshops and educational programs sprung up to teach photographers the historic process. Instead of a technological marvel, the tintype became a niche medium for creatives and hobbyists wanting to craft unique photographic objects. While no longer a mainstream format, the tintype found new life and meaning in the hands of revivalist photographers.

Tintype Process and Technique

The tintype process involves preparing light-sensitive chemicals on a thin metal plate, exposing the plate while still wet inside a camera, and then quickly developing the latent image before the emulsion dries. This "wet plate collodion" process requires real-time mixing of the chemicals and considerable dexterity to prepare, expose, and develop the plate with the camera on-site before the emulsion sets.

The key steps in creating a tintype are:

  • Cleaning and sensitizing a sheet of iron or tin with an acidic solution to optimize light sensitivity

  • Applying a layer of wet collodion containing suspended silver halides, which are photosensitive

  • Loading the wet plate into the camera while still moist and exposing it for the desired length of time

  • Developing the latent image via a photochemical reaction by pouring on a reducing agent while still wet

  • Fixing the image with sodium thiosulfate to prevent further darkening

  • Drying and optionally protecting with varnish

This process must be done start-to-finish within about 10-15 minutes before the emulsion dries, requiring portable darkroom skills. The resulting image has a distinctive matte finish and appears as a positive on the metal backing, unlike other processes that layer images on paper or glass. The photosensitized metals create grainy, high-contrast images with a characteristic ambrotype-like look.

Distinctive Characteristics

Tintypes have several distinctive characteristics that set them apart from other photographic processes, both historical and modern. These unique qualities arise from the process and materials used to create tintypes:

  • Direct positive on thin iron sheet - Tintypes produce a direct positive image directly onto a thin sheet of iron that has been coated in a dark lacquer or enamel. This is distinctly different from other early photographic methods like daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and wet plate collodion negatives which required additional steps to produce a final positive image. The resulting tintype image has a sharpness and clarity inherent to the process.

  • One-of-a-kind images - Each tintype image is unique because there is no underlying negative that can be used to make prints or copies. This gives each image a special quality, since it cannot be exactly reproduced. Even if two photos were taken seconds apart, the developing process would result in distinct images.

  • Tonality and imperfections - Due to the iron sheet base, tintype images have a wide tonal range from warm darks to glowing highlights. They also exhibit imperfections like blotches, spots, streaks and inconsistent grain that give tintypes an idiosyncratic, organic appearance. These imperfections add character and can be seen as artistic merits rather than defects.

The combination of these qualities - the direct positive on iron, the uniqueness of each image, and the lovely flaws - create the distinctive look and beauty of tintype photographs. They have an ethereal, haunting quality that feels tied to the era they originally gained popularity in during the mid-19th century.

Current Niche Status

Today, tintype photography has become a niche format produced by a small number of specialized practitioners. While tintypes were once a ubiquitous part of everyday photography, they are now mainly created for artistic and hobbyist purposes rather than for capturing everyday life.

Tintypes are currently most often used for artistic portrait photography. Photographers who work in alternative processes or historic techniques will sometimes offer tintype portraits as part of their services. The tintype's distinctive look, with the dark edges and slight imperfections, creates a unique effect for portraits that some customers desire. Tintypes lend an antique, timeless quality to the image.

There is also a small but dedicated collector market for tintypes. Fine art collectors and photography aficionados seek out high-quality or rare tintypes at auctions or photography galleries. These collectible tintypes are valued for their historic significance, scarcity, and condition.

While tintypes no longer enjoy the widespread popularity they once had in the 19th century, they have found a niche as an artistic medium produced by specialized practitioners for portraits, artistic prints, and collectors. The tintype process requires a level of skill, effort and craftsmanship that gives each image a unique look and appeals to those looking for an unconventional photographic medium.

Impact and Significance

Tintype photography played a significant role in capturing life in America during the 1860s. Unlike previous photographic methods which required long exposure times, the tintype process produced images in just seconds. This allowed tintypes to capture spontaneity and motion in a way that was groundbreaking at the time. Tintype photos provided a unique window into everyday life during the Civil War era and the rapid expansion of cities, industry, and transportation in the mid-19th century.

Beyond documenting history, tintypes also emerged as a distinctive American photographic art form. The small portable images encapsulated the pioneer spirit. The tintype process lent the photos a dreamy, soft focus, often with vignetting around the edges. This gave tintypes a romantic, timeless quality. During the early 20th century, some photographers began leveraging the unique aesthetic for artistic impact.

While tintypes faded from mainstream popularity, they helped inspire innovations that shaped modern photography. The desire for portability and speed in image capture led to early handheld cameras and self-developing film formats. Tintype's role as an innovative technology demonstrated the potential of instantaneous photography and set the stage for groundbreaking formats like the Polaroid.

Even today, tintypes hold an iconic status. Their signature look and antiquated process offer photographers a way to create dreamy, nostalgic portraits and connect to the origins of photography as an artistic medium. The tintype's impact continues to be felt through its indelible documentation of 19th century America and its influence on photographic technology and art.

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