Tintypes: Hipster Coinage / by Ron Cowie

The wet plate collodion process has many applications. The most historically popular and prevalent has been the tintype. A tintype is an image made on a blackened sheet of metal. Historically, the metal was "Japaned" by baking asphalt onto a metal plate. Today, the material of choice is trophy plate:  painted aluminum used for engraving on trophies. 

Wet plate collodion is a process where a plate of either glass or metal has a salted collodion based emulsion poured over it. The plate is gently  put into a silver nitrate solution to make it light sensitive. This is then loaded into a modified plate holder, exposed in camera and developed in the darkroom. The reason it is called "wet plate" is the plate is exposed while  wet. As the old whites guys said "We hold these truths to be self-evident."

What is Collodion?

Collodion is liquified cotton and is a terrific base for photographic purposes. It also is used in movie special effects to make fake scars. The only scars collodion will make for us are emotional ones. Let me explain.

Collodion Workflow

Using the wet plate collodion process to make images is like baking a loaf of bread from scratch every time you want a sandwich. In short, lots of things can go wrong for no clear reason. Here are a few:

  • Age of the collodion.
    • Freshly salted collodion is a lot more sensitive when it is first made. As it ages, the speed and contrast change. The speed goes down and the contrast increases. 
  • Ambient temperature and humidity
    • A collodion emulsion acts a lot different in the desert than it does on the beach. This is because as the emulsion dries, the speed and contrast change. So, when mixing the emulsion, you need to take the weather into consideration. 
  • Possible contamination of chemistry
    • The more you use the silver nitrate solution, the more crap gets in there that can possibly change the exposure.
    • Developer should be made fresh and fine tuned for the type of image you're trying to make. 
  • Collodion comes of the plate
    • You can make a great exposure, it is developed perfectly, and it falls off the glass plate because the emulsion is too thick. 

The list can go on but, suffice to say, working with collodion will sharpen your troubleshooting skills like nothing else. 

Photographers Using Collodion

Aside from the myriad of tattooed twenty-somethings making mug shot portraits of their friends and baristas, there are some very skilled photographers working with wet plate collodion. Click on their names to go to their websites.

Joni Sternbach

Joni's recent work is almost exclusively tintypes made on location.  Surfland examines and celebrate Surf culture around the world. The technical precision and masterful execution of her portraits in the circumstances in which they are made is truly awesome. I have a tremendous amount of respect for her work and vision. You should too.

David Emmit Adams

Okay, this guy has made a name for himself by making tintypes on rusted cans he found in the desert. The tintypes are really good and the concept is impressive. He has made a photographic object. and made it beautiful. Check out his portraits made on 35mm film canisters.  Its so good, you just want to pinch him for loving it. Love hurts.

Mark Osterman

If I were to have another big brother, Mark would be it. He has been my mentor in teaching, art making and alt process. He is a master of the wet plate collodion process and responsible for it's resurgence. He has written the definitive book on wet plate collodion.  It is the book I use and recommend for this process. His fine art work is flawless in it's craftsmanship and visually engaging. He is the process historian and teacher The George Eastman House

France Scully Osterman

France is Mark's wife and creative partner. She also is an artist in her own right and master of the wet plate collodion process. She also is a master of a variety of historical processes. While Mark is a little more precise, France has a more fluid palette. She gives private tutorials on several processes. Both are incredible teachers and visual thinkers. 

Will Dunniway

Will makes a strong connection between the history of photography and his subject matter. While his images are seen with a contemporary eye, his subjects are steeped in the 19th visual vernacular. I like the blend.

S. Gayle Stevens

I love her photograms using the tintype process. She's taking on some really important issues with her work and uses the imperfections of collodion as a vehicle to enhance the power of her ideas. 

Sally Mann

Unless you have been living in a cave looking for "my precious", you know who Sally Mann is. In an interesting twist, Mark and France Osterman taught Sally the wet plate collodion process. Sally has used the collodion process to break new ground in the photographic vernacular. This same work also opened the floodgates for a population of bad photographers who confuse her technique with their profound lack of technique or skill with this process. 

Luther Gerlach

Luther is a contemporary photographer using wet plate collodion to make beautiful, sophisticated landscapes and environmental nudes. His process involves mammoth cameras and vintage lenses. His work and vision are throughly modern. I strongly invite you to look through his portfolios for inspiration. 

Julia Margaret Cameron

She's one of the giants in the history of photography and if you don't know about her, for God's sake, change that. Click here, here, and here . That should get the ball rollling.

Tips and Techniques

Tell me more about this collodion business.

I could write a lot of information about this but, this is the internet and better people have already written about it.