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Tintype Photography

Wake Forest students get hands-on with a 150-year-old photographic process

Story by Wake Forest University December 8th, 2016

bringing history ALIVE

The tintype is one of the earliest photographic processes, popular in the 1860s and 1870s. A light-sensitive emulsion is coated onto a black metal plate, exposed in the camera while it's still wet, then immediately developed in the darkroom. Using the metal plate revolutionized the art: photographers were now free to wander about the country, documenting the Civil War and westward expansion.

The tintype is making something of a comeback in recent years, as a new generation of photographers discovers the process and its one-of-a-kind results. CJ Harker, a photographer from Philadelphia, recently visited the Wake Forest art department to teach the tintype process to students in John Pickel's alternative processes class.

Kai Lu ('17) uses the Eastman portrait camera in the makeshift studio in Scales.

Preparing the plate

The technique for smoothly coating the plate with the collodion emulsion and then infusing it with silver nitrate takes quite a bit of practice to perfect. CJ prepares the chemistry before class, then demonstrates how to coat and sensitize a 4x5-inch metal plate. The resulting emulsion is not very light sensitive - it has an ISO value of about 1 - and CJ can use a red headlamp and regular darkroom safelighting for much of the process.

The tintype photo process requires collodion emulsion, silver nitrate and distilled water.
Photographer CJ Harker prepares the metal plate for exposure.
In the wet plate process, a metal plate is coated with collodion emulsion and then infused with silver nitrate.
Using a red headlamp with regular darkroom lighting, CJ Harker demonstrates the “hand twist” for evenly coating the plate.
Kai Lu (’17) infuses a 4x5-inch coated metal plate with silver nitrate.
Levi Ioffe ('17) concentrates on the tricky process of evenly developing the exposure.
CJ Harker explains the workings of his Eastman portrait camera to John Pickel's students.

a really big camera

CJ Harker brought his Eastman portrait camera, an 8x10-inch folding wooden view camera with a massive Pinkham & Smith portrait lens. The camera is framed and focused using a ground glass plate on the rear, then focus is confirmed with an 8x loupe. The exposure is made by removing the lens cap, then pressing a button on a large flash power pack to trigger the flash.

CJ Harker sets up his Eastman portrait camera for the tintype photo session as Barrett Redmond (’17) waits for her turn behind the camera.
Tori Taylor ('17), Professor John Pickel and Whitaker Gannon ('17) [behind camera], move their photo session to the patio outside of Scales.
Andres Gonzalez ('17) poses for a portrait in the makeshift photo studio inside Scales.
Levi Ioffe ('17) sizes up his shot as Barrett Redmond (’17) looks on.
Visiting photographer CJ Harker positions the Eastman camera and portable lights outside of Scales for a hands-on tintype photography class.
Barrett Redmond (’17) takes a portrait of classmate Ann Nguyen ('17).
Ann Nguyen ('17) takes her turn behind the Eastman camera.
Portrait and documentary photographer CJ Harker.
Barrett Redmond ('17) removes the lens cap to start the exposure.

doing the darkroom twist

Coating the plate and developing both require the same hand motion: the plate is held flat on the fingertips, the chemistry is poured on top, and the plate is turned and twisted to get an even coat. When developing the plate, this movement has to be very fast and precise - the developer works almost instantly, and any unevenness or missed areas will ruin the final image.

CJ Harker wears a red headlamp to begin the tintype developing process.
The metal plate is twisted and turned quickly to distribute the chemistry evenly.
CJ Harker (far right) in the dark room with (left to right) Nia McIntosh ('18), Professor John Pickel, Kai Lu ('17) and Levi Ioffe ('17).
CJ Harker fields a question from Levi Ioffie ('17) in the dark room. Left to right, Sam Anich ('17), Kai Lu ('17), and Prof. Pickel listen.
Whitaker Gannon (’19) observes as CJ Harker demonstrates how the tintype image is developed.
Kai Lu (’17) and Barrett Redmond (’17) listen carefully to CJ Harker’s instructions in the dark room.
Ann Nguyen ('17) chats with visiting Philadelphia photographer CJ Harker.
An image is revealed as the metal plate is lifted from the fixing tray.
Professor Pickel and photographer CJ Harker chat in the dark room as Ann Nguyen ('17) works on developing her photo.
CJ Harker pours a steady stream of distilled water over a plate to stop the development.

Photo finish

After the plates have been washed and then dried overnight, the students can varnish them to prevent oxidation. The varnishing process uses the same tricky pour-and-twist motion, of course.

L-R, Levi Ioffe ('17), Kai Lu ('17), Whitaker Gannon ('19), Barrett Redmond ('17) and Nia McIntosh ('18) look over their tintype photos.
Nia McIntosh ('18) and Tori Taylor ('17) study an example of tintype photography.
Kai Lu (’17) and Nia McIntosh ('18) admire the work of their classmates as the students’ final portraits are displayed.
L-R, Ann Nguyen ('17), Whitaker Gannon (’19), Nia McIntosh ('18) and Tori Taylor ('17) enjoy John Pickler's alternative processes class.
Barrett Redmond (’17) grins at the tintype portrait of a classmate.
Students experiment with tintype photography, a  160 year-old process gaining popularity today for its unique look.
Two images of Kai Lu (’17) are revealed in the photographic fixer.
Whitaker Gannon ('19) displays her first plate.
Footnote: Story and photos by Ken Bennett, WFU. Many thanks to art professor John Pickel and photographer CJ Harker.
Scales Fine Arts Center, Wake Forest University