The small, stylish comeback of the steampunk of photography
It turns out, tintypes aren't just for Civil War soldiers. They're for bicyclists and drummers and surfers and judges and college professors - anyone who wants to engage an 1860s photographic process to forever fix their black-and-white image onto a small piece of metal, to embrace an old process that's become suddenly hip.
It turns out, tintypes aren't just for Civil War soldiers.
They're for bicyclists and drummers and surfers and judges and college professors - anyone who wants to engage an 1860s photographic process to forever fix their black-and-white image onto a small piece of metal, to embrace an old process that's become suddenly hip.
It's the steampunk of photography.
And, after fading from popularity at about the time Sitting Bull was surrendering to federal troops, it's making a small, stylish comeback, led by a few specialist photographers, prominent among them Nashville-based Giles Clement.
For four years, Clement and dog Zeiss - named for a German lens manufacturer - have traveled the country, shooting tintypes for an overflow list of clients and corporations. Clement, 34, set up in a borrowed studio in Fishtown last week, having to turn down prospective clients because his schedule was full.
A session lasts 15 minutes. He charges $60 for a 4x5 tintype, and $180 for an 8x10 - rates likely to soon be driven higher by demand.
Why does Clement shoot tintypes?
"Because of their inherent flaws," he said. "Because they're not perfect. The whole process is very slow. That slows me down, and makes me think. And makes the subject think."
In a world where technology makes everyone a cellphone photographer, and where photos can be shot, edited, and zapped across the world in moments, tintypes look almost handmade.
And, being an old and unusual photographic method, they attract a particular kind of subject.
Nadia Ansary, 40, an assistant professor of psychology at Rider University, traveled to Fishtown from New Jersey on Friday.
She wore a black dress with lace sleeves, and purple polish on her fingernails. Her husband, New Jersey Superior Court Judge Hany Mawla, was equally stylish, dressed in a dark velvet suit and pink dress shirt.
One at a time, they sat in front of a wrinkled cloth backdrop, holding still and staring ahead. Clement peered at them through an old lens attached to an old camera.
Then, all together, they watched as the metal was submerged in a chemical bath to slowly reveal its content.
"It's so private in some ways," Ansary said. "It seems personal."
Her husband was drawn to tintypes for some of the same reasons.
"There's an old soul in me," said the 41-year-old judge.
A tintype, he noted, is unique. It can be transferred not by computer or iPhone, but by handing the photo to someone else.
A tintype goes by other aliases, also known as a melainotype or ferrotype - ferrous meaning iron. Tintypes don't actually contain tin. The photograph is made by creating a direct positive on a thin sheet of metal, usually iron, which is then developed and often coated with lacquer or enamel.
Tintypes first became popular near the start of the Civil War, as soldiers sat for portraits before joining their units.
The speed and portability of the tintype process freed photographers from the studio. Many worked in booths at county fairs or carnivals, or in any area they could find an audience and room to work.
The process is largely impervious to editing and highly sensitive to light.
But tintype photography didn't last long - it was on its way out by the 1880s. Today many of those old, original photos of Civil War soldiers have become collectible, appearing on auction sites like eBay where unusual pictures can sell for hundreds of dollars.
"I like the whole idea that it's the complete opposite of digital," said Rebecca Barger, who had her portrait made on Friday. "It's a one-shot deal, or a two-shot deal."
Barger, a former Inquirer photojournalist who runs Rebecca Barger Photography in Jenkintown, said word of Clement's skill has spread widely on social media, putting him in demand.
Some people bring props. Like the woman with the surfboard. One man wore a superhero cape. A family brought their pet goat.
In the photos, the faces reveal lifetimes, the eyes and cheekbones sharp, the skin lines soft. The craft is harder than it looks, and Clement thinks that as he's worked in the medium his photos have gotten better and better.
Clement started out as a photojournalist for the Delaware Gazette in Delaware, Ohio, population 36,000. He worked as a stringer for the Associated Press in Columbus. But even as he shot with modern equipment, he fell in love with the old.
Today he travels in a van packed with cameras, lights, and gear, much of it dating to a time when pieces were handmade.
From Philadelphia, he planned to head to New York, then to Boston, then back to Philadelphia in January. He sleeps in hotels or on friends' couches. He'll eventually return to Nashville, where he's found a like-minded community of, as he put it, artists, musicians, and misfits.
What's the difference between how tintypes are made in 1860 and 2015?
"Nothing," Clement said.
"I don't shoot it because of the process - I like the results. To some extent, the images are timeless. But I don't photograph people to make them look like they're in the 1800s. I shoot them to make a great image."