The Wayfaring Tintyper
Giles Clement bends time and weaves wonder with portraits using an age-old photographic process
Reminiscent of traveling photographers of the 19th century, Giles Clement tours through the country with his assistant, Zeiss (an Irish Terrier), offering everything from portrait sessions to wildly creative photographic projects for magazines and companies.
While his mode of transportation has evolved with the times, his photographic method and gear have changed very little compared to the photographers of days past.
With over three-years of tintyping experience under his belt and an impressive list of clients, Clement has carved a name out for himself as an accomplished image-maker and continues to spread his passion for this ages-old technique everywhere he goes.
Howdy Giles. First off, let’s get acquainted — tell us a little bit about yourself.
Giles: I’m a native New Yorker, but of the mid-state variety so slightly less fast paced and fast tongued than my southern brethren. I grew up in the Catskill mountains with a huge family and a ton of wild space to run around in. My dad was very mechanical and as a younger man worked in the photography and book-making fields, so I think a curiosity for photographs was implanted in me early on even though I didn’t pick up a camera until I was 18. I got my first freelance job shooting for a newspaper when I was 20 and spent the next seven years as a photojournalist at various publications.
You started with film and digital photography, right? What was the conversion into tintype photography like? And how big of a role did your prior photography experience play in preparing you for tintyping?
Giles: I started out with film, shooting an Olympus OM2 that I found at a pawn shop in South Carolina for $200, I used that for two years before picking up my first digital, an Olympus E-10 I think. I stuck with digital through the news jobs but at one I was digging through the papers basement and came across a cupboard full of their old film cameras, Nikons mostly, but also some old Mamiya TLR’s. I started taking these on assignment with me and the photos I got were different, flawed and full of life. That reignited my interest in film and then progressed from Medium to 4×5 to 8×10.
Giles: At some point I realized that film was bloody expensive at bigger sizes and started looking for an alternative. I shot some paper but never really liked the look. I had seen some tintypes pop up on my flickr feed (this was around 2012) and really liked the aesthetic.
I stewed on it for several months before finally pulling the trigger on all the gear I’d need for tintype at about 2am one night after a bar crawl. Five days later, I had a bunch of UPS boxes with flammable labels on them on my stoop and the tintype journey began.
Who/what was the most helpful resource when you first started with tintype photography? Or was it more a of DIY situation?
Giles: It was very much a DIY situation. I read as much as I could find online, asked a few questions on a forum but otherwise just stuck it out by myself for the first six-months or so. I was messing up quite a bit and making some pretty awful images before I met my first veteran tintype photographer Jody Ake who gave me a few simple pointers that turned a baffling process that I screwed up constantly into more of a scientific thing for me.
Since then I’ve asked a lot of questions, both in person and online, of an ever growing community of wet plate shooters. I’m still learning and still improving and still screw up plenty but that’s the fun of it.
Talk a bit about your gear. Do you have a favorite setup? Where do you go when you want to buy a ‘new’ lens or other equipment?
Giles: I buy my gear sporadically and since I can never afford the ebay prices on most stuff I just wait to get lucky. I’ve been pretty lucky. I honestly don’t think I have a favorite setup — I did a head count in my van the other day and came up with 13 cameras that I travel with. I have a few I’ll never sell, like my Leica and Widelux, but they all have their moments. With the tintypes, I really like my Sinar 4×5 and a 13” CC Harrison Petzval that is difficult to use but gives amazing results if you treat her right.
So you have an original Petzval lens in your collection — can you tell us a bit about it?
Giles: I have four Petzvals now — they just kind of find me. The first one I found is my favorite and a complete gem. I was in Chicago and stopped through an antique shop, did my normal five minute walk-through looking for camera gear and spotted this one just as I was leaving. It’s a CC Harrison Petzval made in 1849 and was definitely a contributing factor to my getting into tintype. It’s actually a daguerreotype lens and is quirky as hell.
The chromatic aberration on it is pretty bad so when shooting tintypes, there’s a phenomenon known as chemical focus. The silver halides on a tintype are only sensitive to blue light and the human eye mostly sees the green end of the light spectrum. A modern lens is corrected so that the full visible light spectrum is focused to a single point, but with this lens they come through at slightly different angles so the focusing point your eye sees is actually slightly different than what the tintype sees. Before each shot, I focus but then nudge the focus point forward to correct this. With time, I’ve gotten pretty good at judging how much of a nudge it needs and the resolution of the 165 year-old optic is stunning.
You explore other mediums of photography like instant, film, digital and so on. How does your approach change between different mediums, or does it?
Giles: My approach definitely changes between mediums but they all affect each other. In some ways I think digital is almost like practice for me now, you can shoot so much without consequence and it’s good to sometimes just blast off photos and then go through your options later. I’m also learning to be less restrictive with my film or digital work and to assign the best camera to the job more.
Giles: I’d love to think I can shoot anything with a tintype but honestly it’s not that great at some things. I’ve been shooting tin for over three years now and am slowly working my way back to more film/instant and digital. But really it’s not about the camera, it’s about your eye, the story you’re trying to tell and how effectively you communicate that to your audience.
It seems like you’re always on the move with your work — for instance one of your recent projects, 22 Faces 22 Places, took you from San Diego to the lovely Olympic Peninsula of Washington State. What was that like?
Giles: The 22 Faces Project was pretty wild. I’d been asked by a hotel to shoot art for their new locations walls. It’s a seaside hotel run by a couple of friends of mine who had me shoot photos for their first big location a few years ago. On that one I just shot landscapes around the hotel itself over the course of a month. I’m much more of a people photographer so when they asked me to do the new hotel I proposed driving up the entire Pacific coast and shooting not only the landscape but also the people who lived in and were inspired by the those surroundings. It took me about two months and I am pleased with the outcome. The hotel has 22 rooms in it and each one has two landscapes from a specific location on the coast and a portrait of someone who lives there. Room 1 is San Diego, Room 22 is Neah Bay, WA.
Giles: I’ve been on the move for about 18 months now, that came about kind of by accident with a gig I got in Texas a couple of years ago when I was based in Portland. The road is fun but also tiring and I’m probably hitting a point physically and mentally where I could use the same bed for more than a couple of nights. I’d also like to get a studio again. I’ve learned a hell of a lot about photography in general, about tintypes in specific and would like to have the time to really explore some techniques and ideas. I know I can do good things with a subject and a tintype in fifteen minutes and hopefully I can do great things with a good subject and four hours.
What’s coming up next for you?
Giles: I just finished up shooting the Newport Folk Festival, the oldest music festivals in the US which was nothing short of incredible. My friends at Squarespace sponsored me to come back for a second year and I had a great studio there inside a 160 year old fort with crumbling walls and wood floors. Really a dream studio for any photographer. I had Vanity Fair pick up and run the tintypes I took of the musicians and was really stoked to be able to share those with a wider audience.
I’m back on the road again for the rest of August shooting in cities down the east coast but then will be looking for some kind of semi-permanent residence. Not sure where yet though. Home is where the dog is right?