Thursday, August 25, 2016

Tintypes: The Instant Photographs of the 19th Century

Photographer unknown, Charles Corsiglia and Family, 1860s
California Historical Society

Tintypes, or ferrotypes, were the Polaroids of the nineteenth century. The small metal photographs were processed immediately after exposure, offering more-or-less instant gratification for the people pictured.

Of course, what constituted quick results in the nineteenth century might seem excruciatingly slow to us today. With exposures of several seconds—too long for most people to comfortably hold a smile—it is no wonder that so many of the faces we see in tintypes seem to stare into the camera with a steely resolve (to stay still, no doubt).

Photographer unknown, Mrs. Duty Place (Alzada Sheldon) with Mrs. Stephen Sheldon, 1860s
California Historical Society

For photographers, the process was not instantaneous at all.  In fact it involved quite a bit of labor and skill. First a lacquered sheet of iron—not tin as the name suggests—had to be carefully coated with a collodion solution containing light-sensitive silver salts immediately before the plate was exposed in a camera. Then, the still-wet plate had to be quickly removed from the camera and processed in a series of chemical baths and water. The process was cumbersome, with all the equipment needed on site, including a large camera with a tripod and a dark room (or tent). Action shots were certainly out the question.

Tintype Camera (attributed to Benton Pixley Stebbins, 1825–1906)
Courtesy of National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

Tintypes had limitations, but none of them prevented the medium from becoming extremely popular for portraiture in the second half of the nineteenth century. They were laterally reversed—a consequence of the direct positive process—but that meant people got a view of themselves that matched their familiar mirror image. The limited tonal range from gray to black could be improved with hand tinting.

Tintype galleries also did what they could to flatter sitters, posing them next to columns or in front of painted backdrops that served to underscore, or elevate, the sitter’s class status. Tintypes were also relatively inexpensive and durable, compared to earlier photographs like daguerreotypes and ambrotypes. One of the tintypist’s most popular markets was among Civil War soldiers who commonly sent home portraits of themselves to loved ones.

Civil War–era Tintypes
Courtesy PBS Newshour

The California Historical Society has numerous tintypes in its collection, many of them picturing San Franciscans seated in portrait studios with all the usual props. The rare few were taken out of doors, or carefully staged with clever backdrops to look like it.

Photographer unknown, James Walker, 1860s
California Historical Society

Photographer unknown, Unidentified Man, 1880s
California Historical Society

Photographer unknown, The Chutes, San Francisco, 1880s
California Historical Society

Erin Garcia
Managing Curator of Exhibitions

On view July 21–November 27, 2016 at the California Historical Society:
Two Exhibitions Featuring Contemporary and Historic Tintypes

California Historical Society
678 Mission St., San Francisco

Tuesday–Sunday, 11:00am–5:00pm
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