By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS I WRITE THIS, I’M EXPERIENCING WHAT I CALL AN EXQUISITE TORTURE, a feeling I associate with my very first days as a photographer. The term recalls the period between when someone shoots with film and when that film comes back, and both words in the phrase are of equal power. Exquisite— because, as long as the film is in the hands of the processors, I may have made the greatest pictures of my life—and torture, because, in this waiting period, I no longer trust the choices in exposure and technique that I felt so strongly about just days ago. In short, until the mailman arrives, my little roll of film is teetering between Everything and Nothing. It’s a feeling I recall deeply, a feeling I no longer experience with regularity in the digital age.
And beyond a certain perverse nostalgia, I haven’t missed it.
Why do I even have a roll of film at the lab in 2020? Idle curiosity, mostly, sparked by the fact that, several years ago, Kodak decided to revive one of its old slide films, Ektachrome, an emulsion that accompanied me on many a key journey along the road to making pictures, and an event that intrigued me just because of its Quixotic hopelessness. I don’t miss the uncertain waiting for film because I frankly don’t miss film itself, as either a process or a tool. Of course, I can call forth specific memories of what it felt like to work that way. The mechanical moves and calculations. The limits, the frustrations. The rituals.
And the expense. Oy, the expense.
I can’t imagine teaching myself everything I’d need to learn with a new camera today, hamstrung by the economics of film. Every shot, hit or miss, costs you money. You actually pay three times for every shot; for the film itself, for making an attempt at a picture, and for paying to have your picture, hit or miss, processed. All to have the entire enterprise fail, which has happened more than a few times to many of us over a lifetime. Technology’s only essential role in the development of photography is to make processes reliable and invisible, to ensure that the machinery will get out of the way of making a picture, not ensure that a higher percentage of those pictures never get made.
Film in the hands of a master (which I sadly never was) is a crap shoot….a well-calculated, educated guess of a crapshoot, but a crapshoot nonetheless. So no, beyond the ache of memory (a phrase which is the linguistic origin of the word nostalgia), I don’t miss film, any more than I long for watering and shoeing my horse before climbing into the saddle to amble into town. It was necessary for us all to go through that evolutionary layer in order to get to where we are, with film occupying an honorable place in the same long time line that includes tintypes and glass plates. However, we don’t primarily use these formats anymore because we have learned better. I’m not disrespecting any part of that journey….but it is a journey, not a destination. You either move forward, or you nail one foot to the ground and forever walk in a circle. It’s fun to put your old Army uniform for five minutes, but you’re not going to wear it to dinner.
That said, I sure hope my slides come out good (damn you, inner child)….
Fiat Lux, Michael Perkins’ newest collection of images, is now available from NormalEye Books.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT WAS PRETTY COMMON, just a few years ago, to find a county fair or amusement park that boasted its own “old-timey” photo booth, a space where families could don historic costumes and pose for a simulated sepia daguerreotype. It was the start of a trend that continues to the digital age, in which the bulky, balky technology of Photography Eras Past becomes romanticized as an effect to be applied to contemporary images. Or, to put it in practical terms, everything old is new again….in an app.
Faking the past via digital doctoring can provide a unique aspect to a newly-taken snap, or it can just produce what I call the “that’s cool” effect, which masks the general purpose of the original and drowns it in gimmicky goop. But the temptation to tweak is strong: apps are cheap (or free) and it takes mere minutes to determine if a given one will add anything to your work beyond mere novelty. One such example is the wide selection of faux tintype emulators available at a click.
The tintype (which was actually exposed on iron plates coated with dried collodion) was never as sharp as its predecessor, the glass-plate daguerreotype, but it was so simple to take and process by comparison that it effectively liberated the camera from the studio, sending field photographers in tented wagons out across the country to shoot every aspect of American life, including, notably, the battles of the Civil War. Eventually paper positives and celluloid film spelled the technology’s doom, but it’s uneven textures and tones continue to evoke a vanished world.
I very seldom use tintype apps after I’ve taken a shot. It seems as if I’m admitting that the image somehow wasn’t enough, that it needed “help” of some kind. I prefer to take pictures from within the app itself, allowing it to use my phone’s camera. The idea is to conceive of the picture beforehand as benefitting from the tintype effect, to pair its “look” with its intention. The tonal range and uneven detail of the tintype can be thought of as another kind of abstraction, and your choice of narrative need not be limited to picturing Uncle Fred as Buffalo Bill. As with so many apps, actual practice can make the difference between a tool and a toy.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
GEORGE EASTMAN’S INTRODUCTION OF ROLL FILM onto the world camera market in 1884 became the biggest single factor in the mass popularization of photography. But it was not the first process to make pictures fast, easy, portable, or affordable. That honor must go to the humble tintype.
All of photography’s earliest processes were slow, inefficient in their use of light, and extremely perishable. Daguerreotypes, which recorded pictures as a positive developed on a chemically treated glass slide, created crisp, almost three-dimensional images, but they produced no negatives and were fragile, expensive one-of-a-kinds.Their long exposure times kept photography a prisoner of the studio, as well as pricing it out of the average person’s technical and financial reach.
The 1850’s saw the first appearance of the tintype, a process which recorded pictures on treated steel (no tin was ever used, ironically). This was something else again: itinerant shutterbugs at fairs and festivals could be trained to make them with a minimum of technical skill, and at a fraction of the time per exposure, with a finished portrait delivered to the customer within minutes. Better still for the tintype was its durability and portability. Thousands of servicemen posed for them before enlisting for the Civil War, and thousands more carried “counterfeits” of their sweethearts into battle. Tintypes became the everyman’s first personal photographic keepsake. They were Polaroids before Polaroid.
Like the daguerreotype, the tintype was irreplaceable, since it also produced no negative. Each image was also marked by its own visual tattoos, as uneven application of emulsion on the metal or surface irregularities in the plates”baking” errors into the pictures. Like diamonds, tintypes were beautiful partly because of their flaws: their imperfections lent them an unworldly quality, an unspoken time machine cue to the brain, an airy something that purely digital emulations have now brought back, as they have many other classic looks.
Hipstamatic, the most widespread lens and film simulator of the cell phone age, sells its own dedicated Tintype app, a cute faker that generates artificial plate grain, the random edges that occur with well-worn souvenirs, the random sharpness, even the option of decorating the conversion of your full-color original photo with the appearance of the hand-tinting of the early 1900’s. A useless toy? Perhaps, if all you do with it is to make a snap of your lunch look “retro”. But this is the world we live in: that which was once the leading edge of an art has become our plaything. Or, more precisely, tintype technique can only become either toy or tool, goldmine or gimmick, depending on whoever’s at the helm.
How charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably and remain fixed upon the paper! And why should it not be possible? I asked myself. –William Henry Fox Talbot
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IMAGINE THAT, IN ADDITION TO MAKING THE AUTOMOBILE PRACTICAL AND AFFORDABLE, Henry Ford had also been the world’s foremost racing driver. Or that Rembrandt had also invented canvas. The history of invention occasionally puts forth outliers who not only envision an improvement for the world, but become renowned as the best, first models for how to use it. The early days of photography saw several such giants, tinkerers who nudged the infant technique forward even as they became its first artists.
Unlike the telephone or the incandescent bulb, there was, for the camera, no single parent, but rather a series of talented midwives who massaged the young art from exotic hobby to mass movement, the most democratic of all art forms. Thus, William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) was not the first person to use light and chemistry to permanently fix and preserve images. But, without his contributions, printed photograph might never have evolved, nor would the negative, the easiest method for printing endless numbers of copies from a single master.
Talbot’s work began as a way to improve upon the daguerreotype, which dominated the photographic world in the early 1800’s and which was, as a positive image printed directly on glass, literally one of a kind, barring duplication or distribution. If photography were to be widely practiced, Talbot reasoned, a practical method had to be created to allow photos to be made from photos.
Talbot’s first attempts consisted of ordinary typing paper coated in a solution of salt and silver nitrate. The resulting silver-chloride mixture was highly sensitive to light, darkening as it was exposed, and registering the light and dark values of a subject backwards, as a negative. However, over the long exposures needed at the time, the darkening process often accelerated to make the image completely black, so Talbot had to experiment with other chemicals to render the process stable, to develop just so much and then stop. The next step was creating what would become the first chemical developers, allowing for shorter exposure times and more vivid images printed from his paper negatives.
Various refinements in the “calotype” process followed, along with a hash of bitter patent battles between Talbot and other inventors evolving similar systems. Interestingly, along the way, the need to demonstrate the superior results of his products had the accidental side effect of making Talbot himself one of the period’s most practiced early photographers, giving him equal influence over inventors and artists alike.
In time, Talbot’s calotype system would be further improved by coating glass with collodion, making for a sharper and more detailed negative from which to create prints. The final step toward universal adoption of photography would be George Eastman’s idea for a flexible celluloid-based film negative, the process that ushered in the age of the snapshot and put a camera in Everyman’s hands.