The Slow Selfie
An antique method of making photographic prints reveals more than meets the eye. April Kilcrease shows us why.
In a closet-sized darkroom in the back of Photobooth, a tintype portrait studio in San Francisco’s Mission District, Michael Shindler carefully holds a shiny 3-by-5–inch black aluminum plate on the fingertips of one hand. Glass bottles containing yellow- and amber-colored collodion — a mixture of liquid nitrocellulose, ether, and alcohol — are clustered on the countertop. Plastic jugs marked ominously with a hand-drawn skull and crossbones sit underneath.
He pours the golden liquid over the plate’s surface, and the bright smell of ether fills the little room. With practiced skill, Shindler subtly tilts the plate from one direction to another until a liquid sheen coats the entire square. Soon, this dark piece of metal will transform into something capable of capturing my reflection. But not before it spends four minutes in a bath of silver nitrate. This is not the speed of photography I’m used to.
We live in an era of the fast and furious digital snapshot. More than 500 million photos were uploaded and shared across Flickr, Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook every day in 2013 according to the Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers “2013 Internet Trends” report. The study’s author, Mary Meeker, expects this number to double in 2014. And Yahoo predicts that people will snap 880 billion photos this year. But while more photos are being taken, they’re also becoming more ephemeral.
Amid this monstrous mass of images and the slew of selfies — photos of oneself meant to look tossed-off despite countless retakes and filter debates — a sort of anti-selfie has re-emerged in the form of the wet-plate portrait, one of the earliest photographic processes. Patented in the United States in 1856, tintypes are the least expensive form of wet-plate collodion photography, which includes glass-plate ambrotypes.
The plate used for exposure must remain wet throughout the entire process; collodion is the gel that binds the light-sensitive chemicals to the substrate. Unlike the millions of edited photos posted in blurry or pixels-showing versions online, tintypes are one-of-a-kind physical objects, and they are extremely high-resolution.
Until a few years ago, only a handful of people were making wet-plate collodion photographs, and most of them spent their weekends dressed in Civil War uniforms. The artist Sally Mann is a notable exception, but even her wet-plate work has focused on death and Civil War battlefields. People are sometimes put off by the list of chemicals, which often includes potassium cyanide as a fixer. It also used to be hard to find classes outside the workshops that John Coffer offered on his 50-acre farm in upstate New York and those by Mark and France Scully Osterman at their studio in Rochester, New York.
Today, wet-plate workshops are offered across the United States and Europe, instruction manuals are easy to find online, and Bostick & Sullivan sells pre-mixed kits. The resulting images are popping up all over the Internet, in magazines, and in advertising. Esquire.com recently ran 31 celebrity portraits taken at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The series includes The Social Network star Jesse Eisenberg, a stoic Flea, and Nick Cave, who appears perfectly suited to the medium.
And last year, Staff Sergeant Ed Drew gained attention for taking tintypes of his unit while deployed as a helicopter aerial gunner in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. The photographs were the first tintypes from a combat zone since the Civil War.
You’re just my tintype
Since opening Photobooth in August 2011, Shindler and other photographers have taken approximately 4,000 tintype portraits in the studio. “We arrived at exactly the right time,” he explains. “Not very many people were doing tintypes, and suddenly we were doing it in this very public retail way. You could just walk in and get a tintype made. Nobody was doing that.” Today, studios and independent photographers offer this service in cities across the country. But when you search for “tintype portraits” on Google, Shindler’s work still dominates the image results.
“I think people are responding to the physicality of the tintype,” says Shindler. “Something was lost when we moved to digital photography. Photographs aren’t objects anymore. They’re just on your phone or your computer. I mean, how often do you print anything? Never. Nobody prints anything.
“I have two kids, so I take thousands of photographs of them, and I print almost none of them. I wonder if any of those pictures will exist when they’re 50. Are you going to find some place to plug in your FireWire 800 drive in 2046? I don’t think so. But I know the tintypes I’ve taken will be around.”
Standing in the darkroom, I feel like I’m watching a sorcerer at work. Shindler submerges the plate in an orange plastic container filled with silver nitrate and water. When mixed with silver nitrate, the two halogen salts that Shindler adds to his collodion — cadmium bromide and ammonium iodide — will allow light-sensitive silver bromide and silver iodide to form on the plate.
Shindler, who taught himself how to make tintypes in 2003 while working as a teacher at Rayko Photo Center says, “The craft, the secret alchemy of being in a dark room and feeling physically connected to something is important to me.” Ever since he took his first photography class in high school, Shindler has loved the “pretend chemist” aspect of the practice. “I loved the glassware. I loved mixing up the chemicals. As a teenager, it was like, ‘yeah, look what I know how to do.’” And with tintype, he can control every step of the process.
“When I started making tintypes, what really appealed to me was not only was I making them completely by hand, but the finished plate is completely unique,” he says. “There’s only one. You can’t even make another print like you can from film.”
This unique quality of tintypes drew Eric Trefelner to the studio after his husband, Paul Perkovic, was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Trefelner wanted a series of final photos of the man with whom he had shared 37 years. “You can hold it in your hands. It’s not ethereal,” says Trefelner. “It has weight and substance to it. And it looks back at you.”
Shindler took a photo of each of them alone and the two of them together. “I loved the photos,” says Trefelner. “I think they’re beautiful. My husband hated them. He thought they made him look old and sad. But that’s part of why I like them.”
Six months after Perkovic died, Trefelner returned to Photobooth for two more portraits. In the first, Trefelner sports a beard that he had kept since he was a teenager, and in the second, the beard is gone. “I don’t know if it sounds self-indulgent, but I was just sort of documenting my sadness and grief,” he says. “It’s hard to live with only half a heart after something like this.”
All but one of those photos now reside in the Kinsey Institute’s permanent collection. The photo that Trefelner kept, one of the two men looking at each other, sits on his dining room table. “So he can still share meals with me,” says Trefelner.
Pore over it
Part of what makes tintypes so striking is that they reveal things that our eyes can’t see. Wet collodion is receptive only to blue light, which makes warmer colors appear much darker in the print. Because this emphasizes wrinkles and capillaries, it makes it seem like the light has penetrated the skin and gone beneath it to the melanin.
“It’s really the least flattering bandwidth you could possibly photograph someone under,” says Shindler. “It’s going to show every blotch in the skin, every blemish, every wrinkle, every line. You can’t hide anything,” he says. “We’re not used to seeing something in printed form that has that kind of resolution. Everything seems extra gritty, really sharp.”
Given tintype’s piercing perspective, Shindler accepts that some people won’t like their photograph. Shindler pulls a photo of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer up on his iPhone and hands it to me. Mayer’s normally polished porcelain skin is an explosion of freckles. Lines creep across her forehead and radiate around her eyes. But she looks stunning. Flecked with an otherworldly white, her blue eyes demand your attention, and her blond hair gleams.
“She didn’t say she hates it, but I know she hated it,” says Shindler. Mayer is the type of sitter who often hates the resulting photograph, he says. “She’s 38, very pretty, but obviously cares about how she looks. I made two tintypes of her. One was conventionally prettier, but I didn’t even show it to her. I gave her that one because she looks awesome, not because she looks gorgeous.”
After all this talk, I’m a bit nervous to have my photo done. I’m already self-conscious about the size of my pores, and Neutrogena ads are always reminding me about my uneven skin tone. Shindler slides the plate into a lightproof film holder and walks me out to the studio. He has me stand an arm’s length away from the view camera. The clock is ticking now. We have less than 10 minutes to take the exposure before the plate dries. As he loads the plate and busies himself next to the camera’s bellows, I step between him and an eight-foot-tall softbox light and enter what feels like a ceremonial circle in which I am the offering — or the sacrifice? Shindler has definitely placed me outside my comfort zone. He might be in control of this process, but I am not.
I’ve grown used to staring at myself on my phone’s screen or that of a friend, as we press our faces together and try to agree on the most flattering angle. I am not used to standing face-to-face with a lens in the middle of an eight-by-eight-inch surface. To relax, I clasp my hands behind my back and stretch. “What did you just do?” Shindler asks. “Do that. There was something in your eyes.”
I feel blind without a front-facing camera looking back at me, but I look up and try to confront the blankness head on. Shindler presses a button on a cord in his hand. A bright light flashes. He has taken my picture, and I never got the chance to say, “No, raise it a little bit to the right and tilt it down more.”
He pulls the plate out of the camera, and we walk back to the darkroom. He flicks on the red light and shuts the door. In the witchy glow, Shindler pours a small amount of developer over the plate, and a ghostly negative emerges in shadowy blues and whites. Then the real magic happens. He dunks the plate into a clear plastic tank of fixer. A dark cloud of iridescent blue, almost black, swirls and quickly overtakes the image, and then, almost instantaneously my face pops into place in strikingly clear detail. Shindler holds up the finished plate. “It’s strange,” he says. “I just spent an hour talking to you and I didn’t see this person.”
When I get to my car, I set the plate on my lap and snap a picture of it with my iPhone. I stare at the image on my camera. My nose is wide and my face is asymmetrical, so I crop the picture in half before texting it to the guy I’m dating, a keen-eyed designer at Samsung Mobile (in other words, someone who thinks about image-making and -sharing all the time). His response: “Life was tough in the Old West.”
Yep, even when you try to manipulate them, tintypes don’t lie. I take comfort in knowing that the text would float away in his daily stream of digital images, and he would likely never return to it. I, on the other hand, can’t stop looking at the sheet of metal in my hands.
I remember what Shindler told me earlier: “I’m not offended when people say, ‘I hate this.’ You know they’ll keep it even if they hate it. Maybe they’ll stick it in a desk drawer or something, but you can’t throw it away.” It’s true. In some ways, it looks more like me than any other photo. I’m not eager to hang it on my wall when I get home, but I already love the portrait for its honesty.
“It’s clearly not for everyone,” says Trefelner. “And it stands out because of that. We’re so assaulted with photos that have been Photoshopped and made to look pretty. With these, you can’t hide your faults. I think it makes us look more human, more frail, more vulnerable.”
Photobooth is shutting down on March 30, 2014, but not because of a lack of interest in tintypes. After a few years of being marginally profitable, Shindler and his business partner are ready to move on to different projects. Perhaps not surprisingly, Shindler is looking forward to having even more control over his process. At the studio, he could get people through an entire session in 20 minutes, and he had days where he made 60 portraits. “I wish we hadn’t called our store Photobooth, because I think there’s something about that word that makes it seem haphazard, like it’s just this little throwaway thing. And that’s not how I feel about it.”
Shindler plans to focus on offering his tintype services at special events and high-end corporate parties. Unlike his experiences at weddings, where people are often drunk and wanting to do jokey poses, at marketing events he gets treated like an artist. “In that environment, no one is telling me what kind of picture to take,” he says. “I’m just trying to find places where I can do the kind of photography that I want to do.”
Photos courtesy of Photobooth. Thanks to Eric Trefelner for permission to reproduce the pictures of him and his husband.
April Kilcrease writes about rollerskating, whiskey, and breakfast tacos. When she’s not working at her desk in Oakland, she enjoys petting baby farm animals and climbing fences. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, AFAR, and San Francisco Magazine.
This article was produced by The Magazine, an electronic periodical that commissions original articles and essays, and originally appeared in Issue 36. We publish individual pieces regularly at Medium, and produce an issue of five (sometimes more) thoughtful features every other week. A subscription to our issues costs $1.99 per month for two issues or $19.99 per year for 26, and includes free access to over 160 past articles — our full archive. You can get a free seven-day trial via our iOS app or our Web site to try us out.