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Civil War photography: A reenactor’s perspective

Posted on Friday, February 23, 2018 at 1:06 pm

This photo provides some examples of Beech’s tintype photography.

Rather than another dull paper on the subject, this article combines my experiences portraying a traveling tintypist with some historical tidbits.

At Civil War reenactments I create and sell tintype portraits for the guests and other reenactors. As an educator I am constantly answering questions and demonstrating the procedure at the front of my studio. Having done reenacting for a few years now, I want to put something to print.

This article is not going to be about the photo-journalism images of Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner, et al. Although famous and reproduced in text books ad infinitum, they represent less than one percent of the estimated million images made during the conflict. These images were mainly portraits of people whose names are lost to history.

Some History

Photography came about in 1839 in the form of two competing processes: Daguerreotypes and Calotypes.

Daguerreotypes were a one-of-a-kind image of extremely fine detail on silver-plated copper. Calotypes were a reproducible image on paper. Although multiple copies could be made, the image quality of the Calotype was vastly inferior to the Daguerreotype. Both processes required very long exposure times which made portraiture very difficult.

Exposures were made by removing the lens cap, counting the required seconds (or minutes) needed, and then replacing the lens cap.

In 1851 the Wet-plate process was perfected. This process produced an image on glass. The image could be the final product, called an Ambrotype, or used as a negative of making paper prints, called Salt or Albumen prints. Wet-plate combined the reproduce ability of the Calotype with the image quality of the Daguerreotype.

The Wet-plate process was also much more light sensitive and reduced exposure times from minutes to seconds. Photographic portraiture had now become a practical reality.

In 1855, a method was perfected to apply the Wet-plate process to a sheet of black lacquered metal and the Tintype was born.
The Tintype was a one-of-a-kind, positive image captured on iron, not tin. The proper name for this was a “melainotype” or “ferrotype.” Neither of these names caught on like the easy to say and remember “tintype.”

Tintypes were inexpensive, simple to make, and much more durable than images captured by the earlier processes. For the first time anyone of means could afford to have their portrait done. Prices for a tintype ranged from 25 cents to a couple of dollars, depending upon image size and the local market.

An aside: This history lesson is the speech I give to visitors to my tent when I’m not busy. If they are getting their portrait done I’ll say my spiel while getting them posed for the shot. One of the misconceptions I encounter is regarding exposure time: how long does one need to remain motionless during the exposure? When they ask me, “How long does the process take?” they are really asking me, “How long do I have to hold still?” They are pleasantly surprised that the answer is usually less than 10 seconds.

Using the Wet-plate process, the chemistry on the plate had to be exposed and developed while still wet. Depending upon the weather, that meant a 3 to 10 minute time window to make the exposure. The chemistry lost its light sensitivity when it dried. This made Wet-plate inconvenient for field use as it required a portable darkroom.

Despite this disadvantage, Wet-plate replaced the earlier technologies by the mid-1850s. It was used for portraiture, landscapes, copying, and photo-journalism.

By 1860 most towns, North and South, had at least one brick and mortar photographic studio. Larger cities had dozens. There was money to be made, and many entrepreneurs entered the business.

There was an assumed difference between the labels of “tintypist” and “photographer.” A Tintypist produced only tintypes by the dozen every day. The Photographer provided additional services; having the time, skill, and resources to produce paper prints for Carte de Visites (calling cards) and Cabinet Cards (5×7 prints mounted on cardboard).

Before the war, traveling Tintypists would trek from village to village, setting up shop for a day or two before moving on. When the war began many of these entrepreneurs followed the armies to sell portraits to the soldiers.

Because of the navel blockade of Confederate ports, most Southern photographers were unable to replenish their chemistry and were forced to shutter their businesses. This is reason there are far fewer images of Confederate soldiers than Union ones.

How do I make a tintype?

My first step is to coat a plate with collodion. Collodion is nitrated cotton (gun cotton) dissolved in ether and ethanol with a pinch of metallic salts added. Back in the day, I would have used commercially available black plates. For reenacting, I use black trophy aluminum.

The plate is next submerged in a bath of silver nitrate solution for 3 to 5 minutes to make it light sensitive. I use this time to set up the camera, pose my subjects and regale them with my irrelevant Civil War photographic trivia.

When I pull the plate from the silver bath the clock starts ticking. I need to transport the plate to the camera in a light-tight holder, insert it into the camera back, make my exposure, carry the plate back to the darkroom, and begin development. All this needs to be done before the plate starts to dry, hence the name “Wet-plate.”

As in film photography, there is a developing chemical, a stop bath, and a fixing chemical. In Wet-plate, development is done by “eye”: the developer is poured onto the plate and then I watch to see then the image starts to appear. Ideally this happens in about 10 seconds. The plate is then submerged into the stop bath (distilled water). At this point the image is a blue-ish negative.

Fixing the image is the part I like best. I present this last step in full view of the visitors because it is so impressive. Pouring on the fixer causes the image to change from the blue negative to a high contrast positive in only a few seconds. It is dramatic and never fails to elicit a few “oohs” and “aahs” from the spectators. It also gets bystanders interested in getting their portrait done, too.

After washing for several minutes in water (the longer the better), the plate is dried and varnished. Varnishing seals the silver from the air so it does not tarnish.

Why do I do this?

1. The creative experience

I consider myself an artist. When I am painting, drawing, or sculpting clay I lose myself in the work and lose track of time. The same thing happens when I get really busy shooting tintypes. It is a joyfully intense experience where I will occasionally forget to eat and drink, much to the consternation of my wife.

2. I am making something that will last

My end product is a one-of-a-kind, archival artifact, a family heirloom that will last many lifetimes. Many Civil War era tintypes look just as good today as when they were first make. I feel satisfaction creating an object that will be cherished long after I am gone and forgotten.

It is inevitable at every event I attend, there will be a mother who will exclaim to her children, “Look how difficult is was to make pictures back then! Now we can just click and post!” To this person I ask, “In the era of Snapchat and Facebook selfies, how many of your images will be around in a hundred years?”

3. Teaching

As an educator, which all reenactors are to some degree, my passion is to connect young people with history and technology of the past. Upon opening my big wooden camera the children will look inside to see nothing. A camera is merely a light tight box with a lens at one end and a ground glass at the other.

This is how I spend most summer weekends. Sometimes I even sell enough tintypes to cover my travel expenses.
There is an irony here: I helped pioneer the fledgling computer graphics and digital imaging industry. And yet, I now produce beautiful images without computers, pixels, wi-fi, or even film; using cameras and lenses over 100 years old, with a process invented over 160 years ago… and it still works.

-By Robert Beech