Actinic: Tintypes

For the love of Tintypes

About seven years ago, photographer Sheila Masson took a curious vintage photograph that she’d bought home to show her father, who’d worked for Eastman Kodak in Rochester, New York, for 35 years.  “I said ‘I don’t know what it is, it’s really weird’, and he said ‘that’s a tintype’. I had never heard of them.”

The British-born Masson has since moved back to the UK, broadening her work from photography to research, taking a master’s degree in photographic history from the University of St Andrews.   She has also built up a collection of about 300 tintype photographs, mainly bought in Britain.

tintype sheila masson

Tintype from the collection of Sheila Masson

Tintypes emerged in the late 1850s as a cheaper and quicker successor to the daguerrotype.   Also known as ferrotypes, they are single prints on a thin varnished iron plate covered with liquid collodion.    They could be quickly exposed, developed, and fixed with a large plate camera and a mobile studio.

Hardy and inexpensive, tintypes were hugely popular in the US, carried by soldiers in the Civil War.    Typically, in Victorian Britain, itinerant tintype photographers went town to town, particularly to beach resorts, wheeling a trolley which could carry a light-safe tent.   But in a period rife with social prejudice, they were long disregarded; both photographers, and their subjects, were overwhelmingly of working class.

That is still reflected today.   While both the Museum of Modern Art and the International Centre of Photography in New York have hosted major tintype exhibitions, Masson’s recent showing of her collection in Edinburgh was billed as the first of its kind in the UK.

In an international market where vintage photographs are swapped around in internet auctions, shots of families and children in Sunday best for a beach outing, pictured with buckets and spades or on a donkey ride, are the trade marks of a particularly British tintype.   These early snapshots have an inimitable charm.

tintype, Sheila Masson,

Victorian tintype from the private collection of Sheila Masson

Masson, whose own photographs have been used in Vanity Fair and national newspapers here, comes decisively at tintype history from the class angle.   “In the UK,” she said, “most people have absolutely no idea what a tintype is, although they were made here. For various different reasons they have been ignored by the photographic establishment, by the British history of photography in general.”

She hopes to change that.  Her Edinburgh show, Victorian Britain and the Tintype Photograph, now closed, but part of the Actinic festival, will with luck travel on to very appropriate setting of the seaside resort of Scarborough. Next year she plans to take a show to London, when her book, the first history of British tintypes, is due to come out.

In Britain tintypes typically date from the 1870s to the 1890s, though their use in some places endured until the 1930s. There’s a particular charm to collecting them. Physically the metal was almost impossible to write on; the photographers, and their subjects, tend to be anonymous.  The exception is the miniature ‘gem’ tintypes, tiny portraits, which were mounted on paper or card. It’s hard to identity where or when they were taken.

But the choice, then, can be made for charm or character alone (though particular subjects, like railway engines, or men in particular military uniforms, are collectible for other reasons). At the same time, with usually just one copy produced there and then for the customer, they are unique. This deliciously bizarre Victorian piece is a favourite of Masson’s; but there’s no clue offered to who doctored it or why.

Victorian tintype from the private collection of Sheila Masson.

Victorian tintype from the private collection of Sheila Masson.

Tintypes in a gallery setting are curiously modern; Masson presents them on white mounts in white frames. The images are richly detailed, but small – a few inches square – and quite dark. They reward close inspection with a magnifying glass – Masson provided them at her show – but overall they would not look out of place in a contemporary gallery.

Modern photographers pursuing ‘alternative process’ work have spurred a revival. Three working in Scotland include Alex Boyd, Graham Clark, and Brittonie Fletcher, the director of the Actonic festival and who teaches at Stills Gallery in Edinburgh.   You can look for her quirky modern take on the tintype snap here.

“There is a huge network of tintype photographers who use facebook groups to discuss processes and chemicals, something the Victorians never had,” said Masson.

Buying tintypes is a matter of trawling online auctions, and sales by collectors, as well as from junk shops, or antique shops or fairs. The gem tintypes can be picked up for £1; larger ones for up to perhaps £30, though prices vary wildly.

The problem now is identifying whether they are British or American, due to the back and forth trade. Good studio portraits tend to be American; beach snaps, probably British.

In the UK, “the class issue is the most important thing,” Masson said. “It’s a hereditary, ingrained feeling, that they were just lower class, because of who they were made for and who they were made by. It’s never been challenged.”

It reflected the hierarchical Victorian culture; while the masters and mistresses had classy Cartes des Visites run off, or could still sit for painted portraits, their servants could just about afford tintypes, at sixpence a piece. It gives the pictures an ‘outsider’ art feel; they carry that sense of a special occasion, an outing, a glimpse of freedom and aspiration.  The sitters are apt to look self-conscious rather than superior; with a sense of occasion, but a little nervous.

“This was the first time that Victorian working class people could have their photograph taken; it’s very easy to underestimate how important that was. With these types of portraits they were deciding how they were presenting themselves, the fact that they could do that because they were so dismissed by society.”

Victorian tintype from the private collection of Sheila Masson.

Victorian tintype from the private collection of Sheila Masson.

Tintypes were so looked down on in Britain that some persist in thinking of them as wholly American; not so, Masson insists, they were made here and on the Continent. “When photography first started in Britian, the people who were making it were really the movers and shakers of the Victorian world, and they were trying to bridge the gap between science and art.

“They were very concerned with how it was perceived, about maintaining a level of quality and a hierarchy, that of only gentlemen should be making these, they should be held up to a standard. So in all of the journals at the time, tintypes are continually dismissed, as being dirty, unworthy, not up to the quality that we want. You hear these negative terms attached to them.”

All set, one imagines, to change.