Horst Herget is a Toronto-based photographer whose tintype portraits are created on metal plates using 150-year-old chemical recipes and photographic techniques. He hosts portrait sessions in his home studio off the Danforth, and on location at outdoor art shows.
I interviewed Horst while sitting for a tintype portrait. As all his sessions do, this one included detailed explanations of the process and even access to the darkroom during the plate preparation and development stages.
“Tintype is a wet-plate process, which means that the plate is light-sensitive as long as it stays wet. When it comes up from the dark room, it’s going to stay wet for about 8 minutes.
“That’s why when I start a portrait session, I like to get people positioned first, so that there is only a little bit of focusing and moving around [after the plate is prepared] — so that we can get right to it rather than risk the plate drying out.
“The process takes a lot of light. The film speed is very slow. It’s about an ISO of 1. So it’s going to be a strobe exposure. Because it’s just too darn cold to be outside.”
While Horst sets up the shot, I ask him how he got interested in tintype.
“Really by chance. I had been a photographer — I’d gone to school in Savannah, Georgia for photography, then came back and worked as an assistant for many years on commercial and corporate photography, then done that on my own since ’99. And about three years ago I had this deep urge to do something outside of my own field of speciality. And I randomly picked this course offered at Gallery 44. I didn’t even know what tintype was.
“And what I really liked about it was that it didn’t involve computers or Photoshop, which seems to be the default way of treating all images now. Everything is Photoshopped — whether you know it or not — minor blemishes, hair sticking out… So I was really attracted to a medium that didn’t involve that kind of manipulation. From an artistic point of view I was unfortunately becoming reliant on it, as opposed to focusing on the image and finding the connection with people.
“I find that digital photography is too efficient. You can be photographing any time, anyhow. The ISOs are so high, you can sharpen it, you can do anything. But you don’t really talk to people anymore.
“And with this process, you take about 2-3 tins an hour, and I find that there’s more of a connection made between the person I’m photographing and myself. And that transcends into the image.”
Downstairs in the darkroom — which is well-lit, except when dealing with photo-sensitive chemicals — Horst explains the origin of tintype and its name.
“Back in the day, they used to use iron plates. It’s called “tintype”, but they never used tin. They used to call it “ferrotype” or “melanotype” and then they just decided on “tin” because it sounded cheap. And that’s the biggest thing about tintype photography and why it took off.
“Before then there was something called “daguerreotype”. These were made on glass and they were very expensive and you could only afford it if you were the upper 1%. So when tintype photography came out, in a few short years it was accessible to everybody. You could get a portrait for a couple of pennies. It was the democratization of photography.”
I ask how difficult the metal plates and chemicals are to get these days, almost a century after tintype was supplanted by more modern photographic techniques.
“Trophy aluminium is very common — it’s what they use on plaques. It’s not specific, we just appropriated it. I have to drive out to Burlington to buy it, but still — it’s inexpensive and accessible.
“The rest of the stuff all gets more and more obscure.”
The first thing Horst pours onto the plate — under a vent that takes away some of its harsh chemical smell — is called collodion.
“It sticks to the plate and acts as a substrate in which the silver nitrate embeds itself. Collodion is cadmium bromide and ammonium iodide salts dissolved in nitrocellulose, ether and alcohol. And those salts change into silver iodide and silver bromide in the silver nitrate bath, and make the plate light-sensitive.”
After the plate had been immersed in silver nitrate for 3 minutes, the lights in the darkroom are shut off, leaving it illuminated by a dim red bulb, and the plate is put into a holder which will be inserted into the large-format camera.
“This is a piece of film that we’re making right now.”
The same chemicals that are used to prepare an aluminium plate can also be used to make an image on glass:
“Then it’s called an “ambrotype”. It ends up being a negative and then you can use it as a glass negative to print an image, or you can put black behind it and use it as a positive-negative, which looks beautiful and it’s something I’d like to do. Glass is more slippery, so it’s trickier.”
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