The Tintype Photographer

Long before the days of megabytes and high resolution and years before 35-millimeter film and zoom lenses, there existed tintype photography. Dating back to the early 1850's and patented in a small town in Ohio, tintype immediately made an impact on American society.

Its virtues were the durability of the thin sheet of iron on which the image appeared and the relatively low cost with which the pictures could be created. A camera with multiple lenses could create several images for pennies. While still being debated today, the process was originally called Ferrotype but became commonly known as tintype. This may be due to the tin shears used to cut the iron plates on which the image was produced.

Today, there is one Edmond man who refuses to allow the tintype to quietly pass away. Mark Zimmerman is a photography professor at UCO and is dedicated to perfecting the craftsmanship used to create photographic images before and during the American Civil War.

“I have always enjoyed history during Civil War times. I found original letters from my great grandfather and it hit home and I found a strong connection,” Zimmerman said. “Photography has always been my passion and naturally one thing led to another.”  

The process began with the thin plate being coated with collodion, a somewhat toxic and inflammable mixture that could be bought from drug store owners at the time, since in its simple state it was used to dress wounds. Next the photographer took the plate and dipped it into a small tub of silver nitrate and other ingredients. This allowed for an image and light to be duplicated.  Originally, the process was known as  “wet plate” collodion photography because once the plate was sensitized with a wet emulsion, it had to be exposed before the plate began to dry.

“What this meant was the photographer had to make the plates, dip them into the silver, load the cameras and shoot the image in a very short amount of time,” said Zimmerman. It also meant that the photographers dark room had to be extremely close to whatever he was shooting. “The days of loading a camera with rolls of film or any kind of a memory card and letting it set inside the camera until you needed it were yet to be invented,” he added.

Zimmerman remains as authentic to the original process as present days allows, with a few exceptions. One of which is the iron plate on which the image is produced. During the beginning of the tintype photography, the plates were coated in an asphalt type material that could be highly flammable. Today he uses trophy aluminum to reproduce prints. It is the same material that a plaque hanging on the wall would be made from.

Another exception to the original process is the means of “fixing” the image onto the material. Fixing an image after it has been developed removes all of the unused silver from the print. It also helps in creating an image that will last. One hundred and fifty years ago, in the back of wagons and being carried around from town to town, photographers used cyanide as the fixing agent.

“That is not something that I am willing to do,” said Zimmerman. “I have seen prints that have been fixed with cyanide and they look very clean, with a lot of contrast, but I am just not sure about leaving that lying around.”

Having authentic equipment is also extremely important to Zimmerman. “It was important for me to find a lens from that era so as to have the right look and feel,” he said. “It’s interesting that I am shooting through a lens that’s 150 years old with a process that is also 150 years old.”

It is important to note a couple of things about the cameras that were used at the time. Flash photography had yet to be invented by Civil War time. Since there was no flash, all images had to be made by the UV light of the sun. That meant that on overcast or rainy days, it was much more difficult to get a good image. In the movies, when you see the photographer using a flash that is held outside the camera with a small gunpowder explosion for light, know that this technology was not invented until the 1880's.

One other invention that had yet to be made was anything resembling the modern photo enlarger. That meant that if you wanted an 8×10 or an 11×14, the photographer had to have a camera that could hold that size and the image had to be made on a plate of the same size.

“It's truly remarkable what the photographer of the time had to endure. For the photojournalists of the time it meant having to haul an incredible amount of gear around,” said Zimmerman. “The tintype photographer was your traveling salesman back then and they made their living on going from town to town offering their services.”

Hamilton L. Smith, Adolphe Alexandre Martin, Peter Neff and Mathew Brady are just a few of the pioneers of early photographer. Research them on the Internet for more information on photography at its beginning.

Go to www.zmanphotography.com to learn more about Mark Zimmerman and to view more examples of his tintype photography.

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