Last week I attended a two day course in Leamington Spa with Mark Osterman and France Scully Osterman, supported by the Eastman Museum, Rochester, USA.
I had booked the ambrotype days, but we were lucky enough to have the opportunity to make both ambrotypes and tintypes during our visit. I signed up because I am fascinated by the history of photography, have enjoyed making (some might say ersatz) digital versions of tintypes on my phone for fun, and felt that actual experience would implant history of photography into my lived experience, which would in some way impact on my ongoing development. And I’m pretty sure it will do.
To begin with we sat down and listened to a short informal explanation of the process. This was immensely helpful for me, being a digital photographer who has only had some very brief moments in various dark rooms over the years. Even so, I wouldn’t have trusted myself to successfully develop any film without guidance from someone else before doing the course. Saying that I am now quite excited about the thought of doing so with my middle son who loves chemicals a lot.
As I listened I was constantly reminded and fascinated by the way in which the early pioneers of photography had found a way to harness chemical elements from our physical world, to break down and separate out those elements, and to take control of them, then bring the elements together again and make them do things that must have just seemed utterly magical to people. Even watching the process unfold today, it seems magical. I was also constantly delighted to hear about how the environment in which you make photographs has such an impact on the end result. Chemicals, of course, react differently depending on the quality of atmosphere, temperature and humidity for instance, leading to any number of variations in the photograph. It made me think about how deeply connected to the physical world those older processes were and still are.
But most of all I loved watching the image transform in a bath of cyanide, turning momentarily blue as it reacted to the chemicals. Before that though we each had the chance to drop collodion, a sticky viscous liquid onto a glass we had cut and cleaned, or a tin plate. Then we had to dip the plate in a silver bath which is light sensitive, so it as that point the room had to become dark. You can tell if the plate is ready when the silver no longer leaves streaks as it streams off the plate when you lift it out. Then you must place the tin or glass in a plate holder and quickly attach it to the back of the camera. For our portraits, taken outside, the aperture was set at f8 and the seconds, I think varied between 4 and 6, which meant we had to sit very still with a brilliantly improvised ‘person holder’ made of a paint roller handle and stand. My hair is a bit blurry in one of two portraits I made with the help of the Ostermans, but that is because the wind was blowing, giving the portrait the illusion of having been taken at a wider F stop than it was – it’s a lovely effect. (I thought about soft movement in Horst’s Vogue cover shots). Once you’ve taken the image it must be rushed back to the darkroom to be developed in acid, then washed, and then fixed. The Osterman’s use cyanide to fix, which they told us leads to better results than hypo. Before the cyanide bath the image looks like a negative. Seeing streaks of blue appear briefly over the image, as the poison reacts with the silver and water, before disappearing to reveal the actual image was like watching tiny little miracles over and over again. Our trainers’ expertise was fantastic to see. They each used tiny shifts of their arms and wrists to make sure the chemicals crept or swept over the image during each part of the process evenly. The knew exactly when to wash the tin or glass to ensure the images developed with rich tones, allowing darks to retain detail and good levels of contrast. Once the image had dried sufficiently it could be varnished which again required careful pouring and heating.
I do feel that attending, even if I never make another tintype again, has significantly strengthened my understanding of what I am doing when I take a photograph and I am sure that must be a good thing. And, that actually experiencing it has deepened my comprehension of how it felt to make and see photography in its early days.
I really enjoyed the course and wished I could have taken another longer course that was happening this week. Sadly that was not possible due to kiddies, work, and other pressing matters. But I would love to do some more and if I ever have any spare money again, and space. I think I would really enjoy playing with those earlier processes for nothing more than the sheer enjoyment and wonder of it. The other thing that has sort of pinged into my mind recently is how photography is in many ways about control. Earlier photographers had to control elements. All photographers must find a way to control light, or at the very least are afforded opportunities to do so. If we’re working with people and even things we must access something inside of ourselves to be able to use the right amount of control. We must control situations. Even if photographing candidly, we must somehow reach a moment where everything falls onto place, and we must take control for a nano-second and capture and store the moment on our digital cards. I don’t like taking control at all. I’m uncomfortable with it. I shy away from it. Control can sometimes feel like an ill-fitting outfit on me. And that is probably why I have gravitated towards photography. Because it makes me access something within that must take control, and I need to.