A Tintype Portrait

Mar 25, 2024

A Tintype Portrait

Mar 25, 2024

This miniature tintype portrait was amongst a couple of small pieces that found their way home from the Bloomsbury Photographic Fair a couple of weeks ago. Tintypes like this, IMHO, are a largely overlooked chapter in the history of portraiture. Much attention has been given to the handful of celebrated photographers of the past. Still, there has been little examination of what I would call working photographers, such as the tintype portraitist. Millions of street portraits like this were taken from the late 19th century up to the 1960s. Photographers like the one who took this image would have been regular fixtures at popular locations where people had money in their pockets and were in the mood to spend it on something like a portrait. Before the massive expansion of the cheap snapshot around the 1950s, having the means to take a photograph or have a portrait made at a studio would have been restricted to those in the lower economic strata – they could not afford it.

This type of portrait photography, a direct predecessor to the automatic photo booth which began appearing in the late 1920s, was as “instant” as photography could be. Tintype photographers would be equipped to take and process the photograph on the spot. Many of their cameras were custom-built to contain a mini darkroom with the chemistry to process the plate immediately after exposure without removing the exposed plate from the light-tight enclosure of the camera body.

Tintypes are at the bottom of the hierarchy of photographic portraiture of the time. They were inexpensive to produce and cheap to buy. Their affordability opened the door of photographic portraiture to the lower social/economic classes. This would be the first time in the medium’s history that those of more modest means had agency over their photographic representation. While a camera operator would still be involved who likely directed the portrait to a certain degree, the sitter chose the conditions of their photographic representation. Up to this time, the lower social/economic classes were either represented in photographs as background furnishings or as the subject of a photographer from a higher social/economic class with complete control over their representation.

What I particularly like about this portrait is the woman’s off-kilter, almost out-of-frame position, along with the dark, murky tonal range. These characteristics are not unusual, with tintypes taken by roving photographers. The camera operator would only have a rough idea of what would be in the frame. They would focus the camera on the spot and then direct the sitters to that point. If the person were not directly on the mark or moved, they would be out of the centre of the frame as in this image.

When viewing a tintype, ambrotype, or daguerreotype, the image’s brights or highlights reflect light off silver suspended in the grains frozen in the emulsion. It’s the complete reversal of how a paper print would be viewed, where silver grains form the image’s blacks. The dim highlights in this image are likely the result of the photographer skimping on the amount of silver nitrate mixed in the emulsion. If the emulsion has less silver content, less light is reflected and is dim. The “Jappaned” (coated in black lacquer) metal plate beneath the emulsion represents black in the image. I expect that many of these street photographers would be counting every penny.

Surrounding the tintype is a miniature frame. At first glance, the material of the outer black frame appears to be leather, but on closer inspection, it is a shiny paper that has been pressed into the pattern by a mould. Inside is a thin brass sheet also pressed into a design.

I can only guess the date, mainly by the attire. 1900-1910? The woman’s black outfit perhaps mourning the death of Queen Victoria?

#tintype #bloomsburyphotofair