Historic Film Processes

George Eastman's mansion fronts the Eastman Museum

I have always wanted to attend a class at the Eastman Museum. I would bet a lot of people don’t even know they exist. Well, they do, and I bought myself a Christmas present for February 10, 2018. This was a workshop – a one day class. It proved to be a perfect exploration into the subject of tintype photography that began in the early 1850’s and lasted until about 1890 depending on what book you read. An interesting fact is that most of the students that come to the Eastman Museum for instruction are from out of state or out of the country. Very few locals participate. I think that needs to change. Although <Gasp!> Fuji is moving into town Kodak is still a staple. They still produce the film, the chemicals for developing and other goodies from the yellow box. 

The class was limited to eight students; two from Canada, two from ‘Cuse and the rest from the area. Our instructors were Mark and Nick. Now I thought I knew my fair share of photography, but nothing that would hold a candle to these guys. Unbelievable amounts of knowledge they are more than willing to pass on, demonstrate discuss, answer questions. They had the answers and teaching methodology for us to digest such huge amounts of data. 

A tintype fresh out of its rinse and fixer.

I think I was most surprised at the chemistry that was involved in collodion pictures. Either wet plate or the tintypes. 

Some of the chemicals required are; Cellulose dissolved in ether or alcohol with a small amount of iodine and bromide. Silver nitrate. Linseed oil or plain asphaltum. Acidified ferrous sulfate. Sodium thiosulfate or potassium cyanide. Sandarac varnish. And water, lots of clean water. 

The “tin” in tintype is a little misleading. When the process was developed they used thin sheets of iron. Tin was a generalized term for a cheaper metal.

Because it was a workshop (that they are offering again in December) students watch the entire process. Everyone got to sit for their portrait and take home a real tintype portrait of themselves – although the substrate is now aluminum. The process was done exactly as it was invented. I was able to see each step a few times and ask questions freely. A basic knowledge of photography is helpful in understanding some of the lexicon. 

I learned so much my head was chuck full when I left. It was an incredible class on one of my favorite types of photography. What makes tintypes so cool is that the negative becomes the positive as the print on the substrate. There is no negative to make more prints. If your emulsion is not right, it’s back to the drawing board. If the ambient air temperature isn’t right or the timing of taking the cap off the lens (the shutter) or timing of the developer, it’s back to where the subject is sitting after preparing another plate for exposure. In our class, the timing of the “shutter” was about 25 seconds. This means that the sitter and everyone around cannot move for that amount of time – although you can blink. Trying to make sure that shadows and highlights are captured correctly takes experience and experimentation. 

Ever wonder why 19th-century pictures look like the person has a scowl or is not pleased? Well, no one can smile for 25 seconds or longer, and your head is held in place by a metal clamp. You must also focus on a specific spot for the duration. 

Mark is putting the clamp on Nick. It is an important part of a quality image.

Another interesting note to this process is that blues and violets will not show up in the image. They become white. If you look at old collodion images you will note that there are very few clouds in the sky. Well now you know why; the blue sky and clouds blend together to white. It is easy to find examples of these in antique stores. 

If you are interested in historic photographic processes, I strongly urge you to attend one of their classes. You will not be disappointed. All walks of life attend these and some are keeping them alive and well when they return home. 

Click on the photo for a caption.