Reviving an old-fashioned photo technique: Tintype portraits

Left: Rosemary, Amanda Magnetta-Ottati’s daughter, featured in a tintype photograph by Marissa Perkins. Right: Rosemary's mom in a tintype photo. (Courtesy Marissa Perkins)

Left: Rosemary, Amanda Magnetta-Ottati’s daughter, featured in a tintype photograph by Marissa Perkins. Right: Rosemary's mom in a tintype photo. (Courtesy Marissa Perkins)

SCHENECTADY – The wispy and sometimes eerie effects found in Marissa Perkins’ photographs aren’t the products of an Instagram filter. 

The shadows and watery edges come with the territory of tintype photography, a process that dates back to the mid-1800s.

Perkins, a Herkimer-based photographer, is part of a relatively small community that uses the technique. She will be doing tintype portrait sessions at Bear and Bird Boutique + Gallery in Schenectady on Saturday and again on Nov. 14. 

“I thought Halloween time would be kinda cool because it makes people a little more open to spooky things. This is borderline spooky,” said Amanda Magnetta-Ottati, co-owner of Bear and Bird. 

The Gazette met up with Perkins and Magnetta-Ottati last week to learn about the process, which has some roots in the occult, thanks to nineteenth-century photographer William Mumler. He invented “spirit photography;” portraits where it looked like there was a ghost in the background. 

“He took a very famous picture of Mary Todd Lincoln after Abraham Lincoln died and he had her convinced that Abe was visiting her from the grave. He had a lot of people convinced, even people in the church were second-guessing their religion… He started doing this and making a lot of money. [It was] purely by accident that he came upon it, like a double exposure,” Perkins said. 

Spiritualism was on the rise at the time and as many lost family members in the Civil War, they took comfort in the idea that their loved ones might still be near them. Mumler claimed that these ghostly anomalies were indeed spiritual beings, and some thought they could see their family members in the images. 

Mumler was later exposed as a fraud, but tintype portraits, namely those without the ghostly figures, remained popular for years. It’s a rarely used process today and Perkins is one of a few people in upstate New York who are keeping the art form going.

While she’s always had a passion for digital photography and collecting vintage cameras, it wasn’t until about two years ago that she started delving into tintype photography. She is mostly self-taught, but she had some help from John Coffer, a Dundee, New York, resident who is known for revitalizing the art form. He holds classes and an annual tintype jamboree which photographers both new and experienced attend. 

“We just have a picnic and we shoot tintypes all day. Elders help youngers. It’s a community and there’s really no hard feelings. People who are younger and just starting, they want to know. They want to absorb everything,” Perkins said, “You really have to love history and really want it to survive.” 

The process involves creating an aluminum plate and coating it in collodion, which is a syrupy, flammable liquid made from alcohol and guncotton. It creates a film so that the silver nitrate can adhere to it, which is the next step. Then the plate is exposed to an image for a period of time, between a few seconds and two minutes, depending on how much natural lighting there is. 

“It’s hard to explain the process if you don’t know too much about film photography, but it’s a direct positive. There’s no negative. After you expose it to your subject, you would go back into your dark box and develop it in the dark. Then I can fix it in the light. Once it’s developed and put in water you can see it being fixed. It goes from a ghostly negative to a positive,” Perkins said. 

The final photograph is featured on that aluminum plate, sometimes with wispy edges, where it looks like the silver nitrate has swirled around. 

Perkins uses cameras and equipment from the early 1900s, which can be challenging to find, but certainly adds to the authenticity of the process. 

“There are some purists that say you shouldn’t use these antique cameras . . . you should preserve them,” Perkins said, “At the same time, why should they sit on a shelf? I’m of the mind that they should be used. If you know how to do it you’re keeping the camera clean, you’re wiping things out. You’re preserving it. You’re constantly varnishing it. Shouldn’t people see it and see what it can do?”

Perkins has found that many don’t understand the concept of tintype photography, the process, or the product itself. It could be because so many are used to being able to snap quick photos with a cell phone and adding filters and lighting effects, or that the art form isn’t taught as much as it once was. 

“I think exposing it to as many people as I can is really important because I don’t think people really understand it. Until you see it . . . to see one online is different than to hold one. I think you can really appreciate the process more when you see it. The experience is part of it,” Perkins said. 

It’s part of the reason she does events like the one at Bear and Bird, to show people the process and preserve the technique’s history. On Saturday, she’ll take portraits of attendees in half-hour blocks, from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Then attendees can see the photos as they develop. Slots are $50 and include a 5 by 7-inch tintype. She will return for more sessions on Nov. 14.

Sometimes, when she’s traveling to different events, people will see her darkroom set-up and ask “Are you a puppet show or a magic show?” The answer? “A little bit of both.”

For more information about the event, or to book a time slot, visit Bear and Bird Boutique + Gallery on Facebook. Bear and Bird is located at 107 State St. Schenectady. 

Categories: Art


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