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  • Writer's pictureBrian Pierson

The Good, the Bad, and the Tintype: How Tinplate Photos Captured Life in the Wild West

Introduction to Tintype Photography on the American Frontier

Tintype photography, patented in 1856 by Hamilton Smith, was one of the earliest forms of photography and became widespread during the 1860s-1890s when the American frontier was rapidly expanding westward. Tintypes used a thin iron sheet coated in a dark lacquer rather than glass, paper or film negatives, making the medium lightweight, inexpensive, and durable - perfectly suited for frontier life.

Unlike other photographic processes that required a darkroom, tintypes could be developed and processed on the spot, allowing photographers to travel alongside settlers, lawmen, outlaws, and cowboys to document life in the Wild West. The immediacy of the medium meant that people of all classes, not just the wealthy, could have a portrait photograph of themselves for the first time.

With their stark black-and-white tonality and small size, tintype portraits captured the iconic imagery of the Old West that remains recognizable today. Tintypes were an instrumental photographic technology in telling the visual story of the American frontier.

Tintype Portraits on the Frontier

As American settlers moved westward in the mid to late 1800s, a new photographic technology arrived alongside them. Tintype photography offered settlers an affordable and convenient way to capture portraits to memorialize themselves and their loved ones.

Unlike previous photographic methods, tintypes were relatively cheap and didn't require a long exposure time. This allowed people passing through small frontier towns to visit a photographer's tent or wagon and walk away with a portrait in hand within minutes.

The tintype process involved cleaning and sensitizing a thin metal plate before inserting it into a camera to capture the photo. The resulting image appeared as a positive on the plate, rather than requiring development on paper. This gave it a distinctive look and made it easy for a photographer to duplicate the image for his customers.

A diverse array of frontier residents took advantage of the opportunity to have their portraits taken. Parents brought their children, young couples posed for engagement or wedding portraits, and prospectors or cowboys stopped into town after long treks to mail photos back home. The ease and affordability of the tintype meant that everyone from prominent citizens to average workers now had access to preserving their own image for posterity.

Tintype portraits remain as vivid frozen moments in time, documenting the diverse people who bravely ventured west in hopes of a new life on the American frontier. Their expressions capture both the hopes and hardships of pioneer life.

Man wearing western attire, black and white, tintype photo

Outlaws and Lawmen

The Wild West was a lawless land filled with daring outlaws and the sheriffs who tried to maintain order. Tintype photography helped document this dramatic struggle and brought the mythic personas of gunslingers into reality through iconic portraits.

Famous outlaws like Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy, and Jesse James were captured in tintype mugshots and photographs. Their stern expressions and cowboy attire made them look every bit the wanted bandits. Tintypes helped solidify their outlaw images for posterity.

When Sheriff Pat Garrett brought Billy the Kid into custody in 1880, he had the young outlaw's tintype photograph taken to document his capture. Garrett would later use this tintype as the basis for wanted posters when Billy the Kid escaped. The tintype offered the first clear look at Billy the Kid's face, while wanted posters spread his image far and wide.

Sheriffs like Pat Garrett were also photographed in tintype portrait sessions, though their images conveyed law and order. With stern expressions and uniforms, sheriffs projected a righteous aura against the lawlessness of bandits. Their tintype portraits were visual symbols of justice and order amidst wilderness chaos.

Wanted posters were a natural extension of tintype photography in the Old West. Outlaws captured in tintype mugshots offered perfect source material for reproducing their likenesses on posters. Sheriffs distributed these wanted signs bearing sketches and descriptions of renegades derived from tintypes. In an irony of history, both sheriffs and outlaws owed their enduring visual legacies to the tintype's ability to capture compelling portraits on the American frontier.

Native Americans Captured on Glass

The wet plate tintype process arrived in the American West just as Native American ways of life were being dramatically impacted by western expansion and settlement. Tintype photography offered a method of capturing images of Native Americans from various tribes and nations at a pivotal time in history.

Tintypes taken during this period provide a visual record of many prominent Native American leaders, warriors, and families. Famed Apache leader Geronimo famously posed for a tintype in 1884 as a prisoner of war at Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida. The same year, Native American leader Quanah Parker allowed himself to be photographed in a three-quarter length tintype. Parker was a Comanche leader who negotiated for lands in theCherokee Strip. His tintype photograph depicts him regally posed wearing two Medal of Honor decorations he had been awarded.

Beyond prominent leaders, tintype photos also documented the lives of everyday Native Americans from tribes across the West. Images showed men, women, and children in traditional dress, posing with weapons and horses. Other photos captured scenes of Native American camps and dwellings. These images provide insight into the cultures and lifestyles of Native peoples during a period of monumental change. While tintypes could not capture action or motion, they immortalized individual Native Americans and offered glimpses into their world at a pivotal moment in history. The tintype process, though primitive, froze moments in time just before Native ways of life changed irrevocably due to westward expansion.

Cowboys and Ranch Hands

The rugged life of the cowboy was perfectly captured through tintype photography. These photographs show cowboys dressed in typical attire like chaps, boots, spurs, and wide-brimmed hats, and equipped with gear like ropes, saddles, and rifles. Tintypes depicted cowboys at work driving cattle across the range, branding and wrangling livestock, or sitting atop their trusty horses. The tintype process was well-suited to capture these scenes of action with its short exposure time. Cowboys were often photographed in the wilderness that surrounded them, conveying the expansive frontier and harsh conditions they endured. Their stoic and gritty expressions in tintypes reflected the demanding labor and rugged lifestyle on the open range. Tintypes served as mementos for traveling cowboys and a way to memorialize their daring exploits and livelihood.

Pioneers and Settlers

The 19th century saw a surge of pioneers and settlers heading west in search of new opportunities and a better life. Tintypes provided an invaluable way for these intrepid travelers and homesteaders to document their journeys and new lives on the frontier.

Families traveling west in covered wagons immortalized their epic trips in tintype portraits. Men, women, and children dressed in their finest outfits clustered together outside their wagons before embarking on the dangerous months-long trek on the Overland Trail or other pioneer routes. Tintypes allowed them to carry images of loved ones left behind and memorialize those who perished along the difficult journey.

Once settled in frontier towns and territories, tintypes continued to document daily life. Makeshift studios inside tents, wagons, and rustic storefronts produced portraits of citizens from all walks of life. Tintypes offered an affordable way for farmers, shopkeepers, bankers, teachers, and laborers alike to preserve their image for their families. The tintypes capture the hope and determination of newly arrived settlers staking their claim on the frontier.

People also carried portable tintype studios in wagons to rural areas still lacking a photographer's shop. This allowed even those on remote homesteads and ranches a chance to sit for portraits. The tintypes of settled pioneer families and individuals represent the courage required to leave everything behind and rebuild amid the challenges of the untamed land. Their tintypes commemorate a rapidly vanishing way of life as the frontier progressed and expanded westward.

Wild West Landscapes

The tintype process allowed photographers to venture into the expansive and majestic landscapes of the American West and capture them on film for the first time. Lugging heavy view cameras and glass plates was difficult, but tintypes were relatively portable and enabled photographers to document the rugged terrain.

Iconic Wild West backdrops like the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, and Death Valley were photographed as surveys and expeditions traversed the frontier. These early tintype landscapes conveyed the scale and splendor of the wide-open spaces of the West. The age-old canyons, wind-scoured deserts, and craggy peaks were recorded in sharp detail.

Mining towns sprang up across the west, with ramshackle wooden buildings and dirt streets flanked by saloons and trading posts. Photographers frequently roamed these towns, capturing the bustling activity and rowdy energy. Their tintypes depicted a sense of adventure, opportunity, lawlessness, and chaos in these rough-and-tumble settlements.

As pioneers rolled across the prairies in covered wagons, photographers also lugged their equipment in pursuit of business. At stops along the pioneer trails, they photographed families with the western expanses as a backdrop. These important visual records documented the pioneer journey and their eventual settlements across the West. From desolate deserts to lawless towns and beyond, tintypes were integral in photographically introducing the American West to the world.

Techniques and Processes

The tintype photography process required great skill and care by photographers on the frontier. Tintypes used a thin sheet of iron coated in black lacquer for the image plate instead of glass, giving tintypes their distinctive look and making them much more durable for travel.

To take a portrait, the photographer first cleaned and polished a light-sensitive metal plate before coating it with collodion - a flammable solution of nitrated cellulose in ether and alcohol. The plate then had to be loaded wet into a camera and exposed while still tacky. Exposure times ranged from just a few seconds outdoors in sunlight, to several minutes with portrait studio lighting.

After exposure, the plate was developed in a chemical bath and fixed to stabilize the image. The developing process had to be completed within 10-15 minutes before the collodion coating dried. Photographers traveled with portable darkrooms in wagons to process plates on location.

Finally, the fragile tintype was housed in a hard case and sleeve to protect the image. The process from start to finish required immense dedication, care, and expertise from photographers operating on the frontier. Their skills made tintype portraits possible for settlers who wished to capture their families and new lives out West.

Decline of Tintypes

The popularity of tintype photography declined in the late 1800s with the advance of easier and more accessible photographic methods. While tintypes thrived as a photographic medium on the 19th century American frontier, they eventually faded for several reasons.

The introduction of print papers that were sensitive to photographic chemicals allowed for the development of paper prints. Paper prints were much lighter and easier to mail compared to heavy metal tintypes. The accessibility of paper prints contributed greatly to the decline of tintypes.

Additionally, innovations in glass plate negatives made photography more efficient and cost-effective. Photographers could print multiple images from a single glass plate negative. This allowed studios to produce cartes de visite, small paper prints mounted on cards. Cartes de visite were inexpensive, portable, and wildly popular in the late 1800s.

While simpler photographic methods overtook tintypes, the tintype process has continued in limited use by specialty photographers. Tintypes remain appreciated for their nostalgic, antique appearance. The tintype era represents an important chapter in photographic history, documenting life in the American West. Their striking imagery provides a invaluable visual record of cowboys, outlaws, pioneers, and other legendary Wild West figures. The tintype's lasting impact is an indelible part of the mythology surrounding the 19th century frontier.

Legacy and Impact

Tintype photography leaves behind an invaluable visual record of life in the American West during the 19th century. These images provide authentic representation of the people, environments, and culture that existed on the frontier.

As historical documents, tintypes offer insight that written accounts alone cannot. The vivid portraits of cowboys, Native Americans, pioneers, and outlaws allow us to put faces and personalities to the names and stories we know. The clothing, props, backdrops, and expressions captured on tintypes transport us right into that hardscrabble world.

Beyond figures, tintypes also memorialize western landmarks, animals, homes, and technology in intricate detail. Through these images, we can visualize the vast prairies, mining towns, railroads, and more that comprised the landscape. Tintypes take us there in a way that would otherwise be impossible.

Given their rarity and fragility, preserving and collecting tintypes is an important pursuit for museums, historians, and photography enthusiasts today. Most tintypes have faded over time, making the surviving plates even more precious. As early forms of photography, they provide a glimpse into past processes and creativity.

Tintypes still captivate us today with their imperfections, mysteries, and artistry. Their echo of the Wild West lives on, allowing those pioneering spirits to stare back at us from another era. These images endure as haunting and humbling records of both people and place.

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