Mammoth tintypes and the magic of the meniscus

Yesterday I attended a rare demo of the 19th-century tintype photographic process by photographer Nathaniel Gibbons at (or at least just outside) Gallery Kayafas, where Gibbons' "Mammoth Plate Tintypes" are on display.

For those of you who are not civil war re-enactors, it's worth mentioning that the tintype process was popular in the mid to late 19th Century as a relatively cheap, fast, portable, durable, and faithful mode of photographic reproduction.   An ordinary citizen of even a medium-sized town could get a tintype portrait made for money equivalent to $20 today.  A tintype (a kind of wet-plate collodion print) is a metal plate coated with collodion (a cocktail of nitrocellulose and ether), photosensitized with silver salts, exposed in a camera while still damp, developed and then fixed with a cyanide solution.  Not for the faint of heart of sloppy of hand in any century as these ingredients can explode, poison and/or blind you, as well as ruin a good pair of pants.

I've covered both vintage and modern tintypes before, but this was the first time I'd seen one made in person.  Most of the action - coating and developing - happened in a dark box built into the back of Gibbons' truck, but we were able to see the setup of the shot and then watch plate go into the fixer and witness a breathtaking reversal and transformation of tone.

Besides the magical reveal of the image, it's also interesting to see the level of craft required.  It takes months or years to get even competent at coating a plate, and the same skill is needed to apply the developer evenly enough to avoid various artifacts. Nobody will ever know or care if I hit these keys right in the middle or on the edges as I type, but it's that sort of finesse that makes the difference between good and great tintypes.

Gibbons called it "the magic of the meniscus."  I think he might have meant surface tension, but it's no less impressive what a skilled hand can do with simple materials.  Go see the work, but don't try this yourself without professional help.

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