Reading Day – American Tintype History

In the world of photography history the tintype has always been one of the red-headed stepchildren of photographic processes.  Until recently most photography history books only briefly mention the existence of the tintype and what attention is given is mainly awarded because of the American Civil War and the popularity of the tintype with the soldiers of that time.  Of course with the reemerging popularity of tintype photography in part fueled by the explosion of digital image making and the loss of handmade pictures the availability of technical information about tintyping is on the rise, but the historical aspects can still be hard to find.

I like to read and recently I have been reading two books specifically about the tintype.  Although I have not been making tintypes lately in favor of glass images, I still have a great interest in them and learning about the social aspects of the American tintype as well as the technical is very important as they influence how I use the process in my contemporary work.  Much of the technical decisions about my work are about playing with the time line of photographic history and at times only loosely tied to the subject of the image.  Each image has meaning at all levels, from technical to aesthetic.  The idea of the time line reminds me of John Szarkowski words in his book Looking at Photographs (New York:  Museum of Modern Art, 1973):

“Many of the most innovative workers of the past generation have found inspiration and precedent by leap-frogging backwards, beyond the time of their immediate predecessors, to a more distant photographic past.  As a rule, photography has not developed in a disciplined and linear manner, but has rather grown like an untended garden, making full use of the principles of random selection, laissez-faire, participatory democracy, and ignorance.”

The tintype did not have a Mathew Brady, Henri Cartier-Bresson, or Ansel Adams in its history to ensure in-depth coverage in the modern popular photography history time line.  Tintypist at the time  were seen as the cheapest and less skilled of all photographrs who cared nothing about “art” and only wanted to provide for their customers what they wanted which was a fast and cheap likeness.  Tintypes were made of everyday people, the workers of the country.  Unlike the high class studios capturing the elite of American society, traveling tintypist were cataloging the everyday American at a time when the country was about the change forever which is pretty fascinating to think about.

Two books can shed light on the history of the tintype and its true impact on the photographic record of America and they are Working Stiffs by Michael Carlebach and The American Tintype by Floyd Rinhart, Marion Rinhart and Robert Wagner.  Although small in size each book fills some holes in the common history of the tintype.  An example of this would be the fact that dry plate (gelatin emulsion based) tintypes were in fact produced and in use by many photographers, some of which used semi-automatic cameras.  In online forums is has been said that a dry plate tintype is “modern” and not a true tintype (like those made with wet collodion), but the historic record proves this false.  Earlier on this blog I made a post about this topic and stated that I did not know for a fact that dry plate tintypes were made, but that the technology was in existence.  I was very happy to find this information as it has been the topic of many conversations and debates (most of which I tried to avoid).  If you did not know, photographers can be pretty picky about their process…

If you have any interest in tintyping beyond the actual technical steps, I recommend the above mentioned books for your personal library.  They are filled with great examples of tintypes, diagrams, advertisements and just maybe that small nugget of information you have been looking for that happens to be missing from the larger, general purpose photography history books.  Check ’em out!


~ by Phil Nesmith on August 14, 2009.

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