Why tintypes in this day and age?
I first became interested in the tintype process when I saw the cowboy portrait work that Robb Kendrick was doing out west. Geographic ran a feature in 2004 on this work, and I was intrigued that a modern photojournalist could use this Civil War process as a contemporary documentary tool. At the time I was completing an MFA and Kendrick’s images inspired me to experiment with an 8x10 large format Deardorff. I created a small body of portrait work on Civil War re-enactors, contact printed it and used a sepia toner. I realized that I was trying to approximate tintypes and coming up short.
I remember distinctly a few years ago telling a friend that I would likely never shoot film again. Famous last words. When I began teaching analog photography in Fall 2011 at the University of Tampa, I rediscovered the darkroom. It was like reconnecting with an old friend. I began shooting black and white again for personal imagery and eventually got back into large format.
Digital has made photography all too perfect. Mistakes can be corrected. Reality can be altered. Colors can be enhanced or changed. An amateur purchasing a digital camera instantly creates mediocre imagery. The steep, dramatic learning curve that accompanied a photographer’s growth mastering film is a thing of the past with digital.
Personally, I missed the craft of the medium, the tactile experience of printing imagery and the hand-made result. I am a portrait photographer at heart, drawn to the human interactions that occur when someone, often a stranger, sits before your lens. Tintypes, and daguerrotypes before them, were primarily used for portraiture so it seemed a logical move to investigate and explore these processes.
I also felt personally that as an educator and a working photographer that it was incumbent upon me to try and have an experiential command of as much of the medium as possible. In many ways, my path as a photographer is just now starting or beginning again… like summiting a mountain only to realize there is another, taller one in front of you.
What is it about them or the process of them that gets you going?
I like the formality of tintypes, the many steps that you must make in order to create a successful image. This may sound a bit out there, but there is a Zen Buddhist aesthetic that dovetails directly with the process of preparing a tin or glass plate to be exposed to light. You have to be present, focused and undistracted in each moment or you risk damaging or ruining the plate. There are a myriad of things that can still go wrong, both chemically or with exposure, so with each plate, you are striving for perfection, a perfection that ultimately cannot be achieved.
At the conclusion of a session, as the plates dry on my antique wooden rack, I have a feeling of accomplishment that is akin to the end of a workday as a day laborer. I worked construction two summers before college and there was a feeling each day when the whistle sounded that I had done something, that there was a result to those eight hours of sweat and labor. The feeling for me is similar with wet plate.
What’d you learn from doing them?
I learned that it takes a tremendous commitment if you want to start controlling the process and having success with it. Just like pursuing a career with photography (or any art), you cannot dabble in it and expect great results. It requires a complete and total commitment. Our culture is one of instant gratification, and I’m sure there are people out there who feel you can buy a chemical kit and start making good plates.
You also cannot work with collodion in a vacuum. I am a member of a variety of online collodion groups and I have benefitted from my friendship with Mark Osterman, France Scully Osterman and Nick Brandreth of the George Eastman House as they trained me last year in the process. Artifacts, defects, stains and fogs are just a few of the many issues that can affect a plate, and having resources to help you troubleshoot them is invaluable.
These problems or issues with plates, however, can also be rewarding and add a unique or interesting quality to the image. There is a great deal of serendipity at play. Until the image is fixed to the plate and the alchemy occurs before your eyes, you really don’t know what you have created. I love that moment and it never gets old, or it has yet to get old. I remember seeing the potassium cyanide fix my first plate in the darkroom of Mark Osterman’s daylight studio. That memory will always be with me.
Mark warned me that it was important if I wanted to start making tintypes that they be about something more than just the process. He said something like, “If your artist statement is about the process, then you’re doing it wrong.” This admonition guided me as I began making still life images inspired by the 17th century vanitas paintings of the Dutch. Tintype emulsion responds to ultraviolet light so it is extremely slow and requires a great deal of lighting if done in the studio. The process has tremendous creative possibilities for slow or double exposures so I decided to start blending the human face with a skull in the portraiture. This added a layer of complexity to an already challenging endeavor but I felt it important that I do something more thematic that tied directly to vanitas. The work is a direct reaction to the way digital technology (Photoshop) alters our cultural concept of femininity and beauty in the world of fashion.
What did you learn about yourself?
I found myself frustrated at times when working in the darkroom as I was struggling for perfection in the plates. My 8x10 plate holder is wooden and slightly warped so the dark slides sometimes smear the emulsion. While I am able to work fluidly with the 4x5 and come away with precision in the tintypes, the 8x10 plates are a far greater challenge due to the scale and my plate holder issues.
I realized that I ultimately needed to let go of this obsession with the notion of the flawless plate. Sally Mann grew to love the imperfections of this process and staining and scratching became an essential component of her collodion aesthetic. I haven’t grown to love these imperfections as Sally did, but I embrace them as reminders that I am still very much a beginner in this journey. Regardless of the photographic medium (and I still use digital for my commercial work), I’m never totally satisfied and always striving for improvement.
About the need for analog?
Analog photography and the darkroom are not going away despite many curriculums moving them out or relegating them to a very tiny role in photographic education. We are very much in the midst of a resurgence or renaissance of film and alternative processes. It’s hard to think back but in the 1990s, there were only a handful of people experimenting and refining these processes. Just a few weeks ago, photographer Victoria Will shot Hollywood actors and actresses at Sundance with tintypes and made a haunting portrait of Philip Seymour Hoffman, the last to be made before his death.
Shooting film and especially working with large format cameras and the collodion process, I work in a more deliberate manner. I had a bit of a watershed moment when I was in Rochester last year. Nick Brandreth, historic process specialist at the Eastman House, and I were hiking down to the base of Buttermilk Falls to make landscape images. Nick had a Speedgraphic and a few dry plates he wanted to expose while I had a DSLR. I must’ve shot about 200 images in that little upstate canyon while Nick kept setting up shots and giving up on them only to relocate, set up the tripod and recompose. This went on for about two hours before he made only one image. It later became the cover for View Camera magazine. Meanwhile, the strap on my DSLR broke and the body dunked into a small pool and was ruined. I took that as an omen.
About the beauty of slowing down?
The digital camera is an amazing tool but it affords the photographer the wild freedom to shoot a limitless capacity of imagery. There is no pause to rewind the film cassette or reload the film holder. An aesthetic has emerged of machine gunning a moment with the camera and finding the one successful image later when at the desk.
The smartphone has equipped virtually every privileged human with a camera. Ultimately, I feel that these tools have become barriers to an intimate experience of the moment at hand. I go to music performances and people are lost in the capture of the moment via their camera phone so that they can relive it later when it is over. They are living in a future moment that is looking back at the past but they are foregoing a direct experience happening right in front of them.
My experience in Rochester at Buttermilk Falls reinforced for me the importance of thought before action with the camera. I love seeing video footage of William Eggleston roaming about with his Leica because he never shoots an image twice but moves about with careful deliberation until the elements collide in the exact way that makes sense to him.
I strive to impart that type of discipline with the camera to the students that I teach, whether it is a workshop or my classroom at UT. Working in monochrome with film, students are challenged to make photographs and not snapshots. It is my hope that by the end of the experience, they will have created a visual testament to an emotion rather than simply an organization of disparate elements in the frame.
About life and how people react to it and you?
People are genuinely interested in the work and I have benefitted tremendously from my friends and students who gave of their time to sit for portraits. The images serve as testaments to a complete collaborative effort as it was often the suggestions or styling decisions of a model that led to a powerful image. A tintype session usually lasts an hour or more and it is an intimate experience. You get to know a bit more than the surface of a person and often the mask they wear comes down.
I think people who are seeing this work are surprised by it. It’s radically different from anything I’ve ever done and without a doubt, it is the hardest undertaking I’ve attempted with photography. But it is also one of the most intensely rewarding. And the journey for me has only just begun.
BIO: Joseph C. Gamble is an professional photographer and writer based in Tampa, Florida specializing in portraiture, higher education and archaeology. His work has appeared in Fortune 500 annual reports, newspapers, magazines, and web sites, including The Christian Science Monitor, CNN, Fortune, Garden & Gun, MSNBC and USA Today.
Joseph holds an MFA in Photography from the Savannah College of Art Design and is an adjunct professor of photography at the University of Tampa and workshop instructor at the Florida Museum of Photography Arts and Tampa Photo Adventures. His writing on photography appears weekly online at Fstoppers.com. His portfolio appears at www.jcgamble.com and www.higheredphotographer.com. For all things photo related, he can be reached at 912.441.5172 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
GO CHECK OUT Joseph’s personal work with tintypes which premieres on March 21st with an opening reception from 5-7 pm at Gallery 501, in Tampa (At Blake High School, 1701 N. Blvd.)
My friend and colleague explains his love affair with nineteenth-century large-format tintype photography, which will be on display this Friday at Gallery 501 in Tampa.
Joseph Gamble Vanitas Fair: A Collection of Tintypes
Tampa portrait photographer Joseph Gamble invited me into his tintype studio and darkroom again. You can see the pictures from my first visit, here. Yesterday, Joseph was finishing double-exposure large-format portraits for his memento mori vanitas project. Using a nineteenth-century tintype photographic process, Joseph is exploring modern…
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