“No other form of photography does as much to convey the social and economic upheavals of the late 19th century.” – Karen Rosenberg
The tintype, a form of wet-plate photography, gets very little love from photo historians. Read just about any general history of photography, and you might find them wedged under the ambrotype section. They could be described as the poor man’s daguerreotype, and that may explain their typical relegation to mere mention. However, tintypes were unique from daguerreotypes and ambrotypes in a few key ways and as such they had an important impact on Americans and the future of photography.
The early stages of tintype development began with Adolphe Alexandre Martin in France. He developed a process to produce photographs on glass, leather, oilcloth, metal, and other materials, and made the process public in 1852. In the United States, Hamilton L. Smith, who had studied in Europe, developed the process further using thin sheets of iron. In 1856, Smith, along with his colleague Peter Neff, patented the process in the United States. Smith and Neff used the term “melainotype” to describe their product, “melaino” meaning dark or black (Rinhart, 12). Their later competitor, Victor Griswold, used the term “ferrotype,” referring to the sheet of iron. The melainotype and the ferrotype, though they were essentially the same thing, used slightly different chemical processes so Griswold could get around the patent. Both became known as tintypes, though they never contained any tin. The term referred to the tin scissors used to cut the sheets of iron (“Birth of a snapshot”). The tintype did not gain any level of popularity in Europe despite its origins.
To make a tintype, photographers first coated an iron sheet with a mixture of asphaltum, linseed oil, turpentine, lampblack, and umber. This process was called japanning, after a similar lacquer used in Asia (Rinhart 11). The photographer had to lightly dust the plate before coating it with an emulsion, which consisted of collodion and silver. The photographer could prepare the collodion (nitrocellulose, ether, and alcohol) or purchase it pre-made and then add cadmium and ammonium and other chemicals (Rinhart 47). The photographer coated the tin with the collodion, and when the collodion was mostly dry, dipped it in the silver mixture. As with the collodion, the silver bath was not one particular formula. Each photographer developed his own, using the silver nitrate, potassium iodide, water, nitric acid and sometimes other ingredients (Rinhart 48). The photographer placed the prepared plate in a holder to protect it from light until he was ready to make the exposure.
Before loading the camera, the photographer adjusted it to compose the image he wanted. Then he placed the plate holder into the camera while it was still wet. After exposure, he returned the plate to the darkroom, removed it from the holder, and placed it in developing chemicals. After developing, the photographer washed the plate in water and then a fixer solution, which removed any unexposed silver so that it was no longer sensitive to light. Finally, the photographer varnished the tintype using lavender oil and a heat source.
The resulting images were negatives, but the black background made them appear as positives. As such they were laterally reversed, unless the photographer used a mirror for the exposure. Tintype sizes ranged from 3/4 inch by one inch to 11 by 14 inches (Rinhart 223). Though each tintype was one of a kind, special multiple-lens cameras could make several copies of the same photograph on one sheet. Some tintypes were hand colored and displayed in elaborate cases like daguerreotypes.
The tintype’s image quality did not compare to that of daguerreotypes or ambrotypes. The dark background absorbed a lot of light resulting in a limited tonal range. However, tintypes were considerably cheaper, required a shorter exposure time, took less time to process, and the necessary equipment was more mobile. These qualities had many implications for the use of tintypes and their place in history.
While the daguerreotype allowed people who were not in the upper echelons of society to have their own portraits, the tintype brought photography and portraiture to the middle and working classes. Tintypists composed their early images much like daguerreotypes – stiff and formal. As the medium developed, subjects became more relaxed and even silly or whimsical. The qualities that made the tintype distinct in physical form and process also led to a different style in compositions and poses. The portability of the medium made it easy for photographers to travel to their subjects instead of waiting for the subjects to come to a studio. Tintypes could capture people at work or at play. Traveling tintypists visited soldiers at battle, traveled by boat along the Mississippi and other waterways, and followed carnivals (Rinhart, 6). The tintype provided a more accurate depiction of real lives. As Hirsch described, “The spontaneous tintype spirit of picturing the vernacular was the precursor of the snapshot sensibility” (p. 78). The tintype was a direct ancestor of point-and-shoot and Polaroid cameras, and as such was an important step toward widespread access to photography.
The medium was popular with soldiers and their families during the Civil War. They could exchange the cheap, small, lightweight images through the mail (Rinhart 81). For the first time, people could have pictures of their loved ones who had gone off to war, possibly never to be seen alive again. Soldiers could have images of their loved ones in their pocket, whenever they wanted to think of better times at home.
The people who made tintypes were not usually considered skilled photographers. “Big city studio photographers considered tintypists to be low class ‘cheapjacks’ who were only interested in making quick money [and] who knew nothing about photography” (Hirsch 77). However, those “big city studio photographers” were themselves inexperienced with the tintype process, and did not necessarily make informed criticisms. If they attempted to produce a tintype, their lack of experience with the medium would result in poor quality images, thus coloring their impression of the medium and its photographers (Rinhart, 27).
Few tintypists rose to fame when the process was popular, and even fewer are remembered today. Tintypists rarely had permanent studios and so their itinerant nature may explain why they did not become well known. The typically inferior image quality of tintypes compared to daguerreotypes and the fact that they were so abundant are factors. People whose names appear in history books are more likely to have gone to the more expensive daguerreotype photographers.
Some successful modern-day photographers use the tintype process for its artistic qualities. National Geographic photographer Robb Kendrick has photographed modern-day cowboys and other subjects using the tintype process. Photographer John Coffer teaches workshops (already sold out for 2015) on tintypes and other wet-plate processes.
Tintypes, though often overshadowed in photography history by daguerreotypes, had a significant impact on American life. They truly brought photography to the masses for the first time. Tintypes connected people separated by wars, promoted the remembrance of loved ones, and set the stage for candid snapshots. Even the working class and poor could be remembered forever if a tintype captured their image.
“The Birth of the snapshot: tintype photography revolutionized the way Americans see themselves.” (2008). American History 43(5): p. 48. Academic OneFile.
Heyman, Ken. (1989). “Tinker tailor.” American Heritage. 40.7: p. 106-113.
Hirsch, R. (2000). Seizing the light: A history of photography. Boston: McGraw Hill. p. 77-78.
Kaufman, F. (2003). “The atavist at home: John Coffer’s tintype world.” Aperture, 2003 (170).
Rinhart, F., Rinhart, M., Wagner, R. W. (1999). The American Tintype. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.
Rosenberg, Karen. (2008). “Rough-Hewn Images for Rough-Hewn Times.” New York Times 19 Sept. 2008: E30.
This post was adapted from a 2011 paper for Administration of Visual Collections, LIS 7730, at Wayne State University.