A 21st Century Tintype

Deborah Rogal, Senior Specialist in Swann’s Photographs Department, contributed this post.

Recently I was lucky enough to visit New York City’s Center for Alternative Photography to have my tintype portrait made. The days leading up to the sitting felt a little bit like the days leading up to picture day in elementary school. I wondered what I would wear (the answer to that turned out to be a coral dress), how I would style my hair (straight with a little wave), even how I would choose to smile (just a little), knowing that I only had one opportunity to create a picture that would last forever. I thought a lot about the men and women who have stared back at me from tintypes taken well over 100 years ago and wondered what went through their minds before sitting down to pose for a camera. My own nervousness must have paled in comparison to theirs as they composed what might have been the only picture of themselves they would ever own.

The photographer at CAP, Bonnie, was generous and allowed me to watch the process, which differs very little from the original 19th-century one. She coated and prepared the plate for exposure, and then took it from the darkroom to the studio, where she posed me on a small stool. The camera sat very close to my face (I had asked for a close, tight shot), and I rested the back of my head against a metal bar to keep it still. The exposure time is longer than what we’re used to (about three seconds), but still relatively short compared to the exposure originally made (the benefit of modern studio lights). After she took the picture, Bonnie and I went back into the darkroom to process the plate. We both leaned over a small tray and watched, breathlessly, as my face appeared on the plate. Even with the benefit of my own photographic expertise, watching the image emerge felt like watching real-life magic. Finally, Bonnie washed and varnished the plate. I carried it out of the studio with me.

In just 175 years our relationship with the way we look has completely changed. We have grown used to promoting ourselves on Facebook, on Instagram, with filters, cropping and editing. But in the intimate, sun-filled studio at CAP, I had very few opportunities to produce the edited version of myself. For a moment, I felt the thrill of staring into a camera’s lens, and knowing that the light on me was being imprinted onto a slim piece of metal sitting just a couple of feet away. What I now own is a precious object.  It represents me in a new and unexpected way. And I watched it come to be.