By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE FIRST MASTERS OF PHOTOGRAPHY STRUGGLED with processes and tools that seemed to stack the deck against the chances that anyone would ever, ever create even a single photograph. Those first exposures, made with slow media and balky, uncertain lenses were not only works of art, but they were truly just plain, flat out work. I recently viewed a video demonstrating the bygone method known as photogravure, the means by which any “serious” photographic artist would render his work for critical approval in the late 19th-century. I was so utterly crushed by the sheer unforgiving precision needed to complete the process that I dropped to my needs and thanked the photo gods for giving me the luxury to merely….shoot. I felt at once lazy and liberated.
One thing these old exposure and processing systems did, however, is fix their visual aspects in time, so that, in our mental sorting process, we easily differentiate between the look of an 1850 wet-plate image and a 1950 Polaroid Land camera snapshot. Various periods in the methodological development of the art have their own distinct signatures. The strange thing is how, in the present era, we use apps and editing suites to summon those old ghost looks back into the present, mixing periods together like a cook throwing all his available ingredients into a garbage salad. We no longer give any thought to making something look old, or retro-old, or ironically old-ish. All times periods can exist in the same image, and whether they have any natural relation to each other is a moot point, if a point at all. We just do it because we can just do it.
In the above picture, for example, I’m merely playing, without any real object in mind. The master photograph on which this remix is based was taken two months ago (Summer 2019) at the main greenhouse building at Minneapolis’ Como Park. The structure’s classic design, complete with rounded cupolas and gently curving rooflines, reminded me of the immense halls that were erected in the 1800’s to house international expositions, industrial shows and world’s fairs, and so I took a fairly straightforward shot from a cell phone and cranked it through an app to evoke an echo of that time, a visual masquerade that mimics the tintype process, right down to its selective pinpoint focus and plate grain. Admittedly, the illusion is spoiled a bit, since the people in the picture are wearing shorts and t-shirts rather than bustles and straw boaters, but that’s not the point. I wasn’t trying, like some master art forger, to make you think this was a newly discovered artifact of the Victorian age. And while I might have been trying to comment on “how we used to think of the purpose of grand public spaces”, or how that contrasts with the public spaces we value now…..I wasn’t. I was just goofing off, using quick and amazing tools the way a child might take Mr. Potato Head’s nose and put it where his ear should be.
What is singular, however, is knowing that any part of photography can be harnessed or combined with every other part of photography at any time. That’s not a hot bulletin, but it is worth pointing out from time to time that, after centuries of innovation, our art is now, like Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, truly unstuck in time. Backwards, forwards, or right in the middle, what we shoot and where we stand are completely under our control.
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.