Tintype Revival

A tintype is an amazing object. It is liquid time pooling on a sliver of manufactured metal. Smelting meets melting time. The mechanical aspect is in the fact of the metal, in the fact of the chemical, in the face floating in the gel, in the muffled chrome of the enameled tin surface; how you can cut yourself on the edge of it, but the surface glosses like a polished nail, only dark, so dark. And in the gloss, the silver salts live in the dark, suspended in their gelatin that holds them ready and positioned to react.

My darkroom is in a limestone farmhouse basement, a crypty set of rooms under our home, with mice and spiders intruding on my gear, the boiler puffing its expansive and generous explosions, the little house freezer grumbling with its mouth full of chicken and maple syrup. The farmhouse dates to the late 1800s, when tintypes were still popular.

In that old space, down in the age and the dark, I learned the knack of coating the metal plates with the photosensitive emulsion; how to get the gelatin to spread, how to pop the inevitable bubbles, how to spread in a smooth swirl across the heated tin, without ripples, without blobs, a smooth shmear of open eyes made of silver, a receptive ground for what the light will tell.

The glossed and pooled metal plates must dry before being exposed, and they’ll dry cleaner if they dry vertically once they’ve cooled a bit and settled. I stack clean black boxes under the worktable and prop the pieces around the perimeters, closing them in to dry in the dark, hoping to avoid an infinity of the many possible infinities of dust on the sticky surface as it cures. Once the plates have dried, I load them one by one into film holders, flat black light-tight boxes with one side ready to open entirely to the light.

Michael, tintype, 2017

The silver salts in the tintype emulsion don’t react to light as quickly as the salts in standard film. Film can get its image in 1/250th of a second. My tintype plates can see, but not that quickly. They see in bits of time that a human body can count and feel going past, 2, 5, 8, 15 seconds, depending on the weather, depending on the light. They’re calm, the equivalent of slow reading for book lovers. They take moment and give their attention, and record something less distinct than photography has grown to accept. They record aging. They record learning. They record the living of a human life, if only for a few seconds of the wealth of seconds that life will span. But their space on their little piece of tin, their little silver pool of scrivening shows a human truth in a chemical prophecy—you are and will ever be what you are in this moment, this passing moment—and also this, and also, this.