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.”
The design of the large-format camera used for exposing the plate hasn’t changed much since the 19th century:
“There’s a few more articulations in the modern version, but essentially it’s just a black box with a lens in the front and some kind of film in the back.
“One day I’ll probably get to building my own camera, but right now I’m trying to make my own lens. I like the fact that — you can never make your own digital camera — but this technology set, you can start making the camera, making the lens… I enjoy that kind of time-wasting.”
After an image is taken, it’s back to the darkroom to see it being developed. Horst explains the idiosyncrasies of colour in tintype photographs:
“The chemistry is sensitive to something different from what we’re accustomed to seeing. For example, it’s more sensitive to blue. So anything blue is going to come out lighter than what we perceive it. If you have blue eyes, they will probably come out lighter.
“Whereas with red, it will come out darker. And so freckles are going to be more pronounced. When I was first doing the process, I would hear, “My freckles! They’re really intense,” or, “My eyes are really light and spooky.”
“That’s why I now try to give as much information as I can beforehand, so that you know.”
The development stage is similar to modern black-and-white photography. There’s the developer, the stopbath, and the fixer. The stopbath in this case is just water, which is used to wash the developer off.
“I use what is called ammonium thiosulphate, which was common back in the early tintype days. But more common was potassium cyanide. Potassium cyanide on itself is not so bad. But in the developer you have acetic acid so if you do not wash the plate properly and put it unwashed into the potassium cyanide, you get hydrogen cyanide, which is a poisonous gas. You’d smell almonds and these red lights would be the last thing you see.
“So I don’t do that, I just don’t think it’s worth it.”
After the developer is washed off, the image is still a negative, but as it is immersed into the fixer, the positive image reveals itself. We agree that the intense freckles look pretty neat, but I blinked in the shot. While setting up for another pose, I ask Horst about his regular photography work.
“As a digital photographer, I’ve done everything from corporate photography to advertising. For three years I did all the Tide stuff in Canada — their advertising campaigns. It was great, as you can imagine — lucrative. But it was a bit inconsistent, so in the last few years I’ve migrated to more corporate work. I do a lot of stuff with universities, and healthcare. It’s more me. And also I find that I’m getting more out of the job now that I’m doing tintype. There’s more of a balance.
“The tintype fills the need to do something without a message, without intent. That’s the biggest thing about professional work, you know — you’re always on message, there’s a reason why you’re taking all these images. And then with tintype portraits — it’s a little bit more fluid what you’re trying to achieve. It’s a lot more creative. And it pushes back.”
How does the darkroom setup work when he’s doing outdoor shows?
“My darkroom is a grow-op tent. It’s all silver on the inside, light-tight, black on the outside. It’s 4×4, 7 feet tall, and I’ve made a table that fits right inside. You step in, and there’s a cutaway and there’s all your chemistry. And for the fixer — after it’s been in the water for a minute, then you can actually bring the plate outside into the daylight and you can put it in the fixer. So that’s a nice stage, when the image reveals itself, that the public can see.”
As the last step in the process, the plate is varnished to protect and preserve the image. Horst uses sandarac — a varnish made from gum resin of a North African cypress tree, originally used for violins in the 17th century — which he has to order from a pigment supply store in NYC.
“Traditionally, that’s what they used in the 19th century. And it works – it lasts, it’s archival. The images that had been coated this way have lasted for 150 years. I’ve tried something else called Soluvar, which is a modern varnish. It works fine, but nobody knows how archival it is with the chemistry.
“What I like about sandarac is that there’s a bit of a showmanship to it, the way you have to pour it. And it is mixed with lavender oil, so it smells really nice. And you put over an open flame to dry. People always like fire — it looks dramatic.”
With the varnish and the chemistry being sensitive to temperature and humidity, the tintype process has taken Horst years to master. What part of the process has seen most improvement over the years?
“The best thing I’ve done over the years is being consistent. Being consistent with how I handle the chemistry, how I keep the chemistry clean, how I don’t cross-contaminate, how I prepare it. And the more I do that, the easier it is for me to pick up problems as they arise.”
When doing portraits on location, the wind and dust also add complexity to the varnishing process, and the changeable sunlight to the exposure.
“When you’re inside using the strobe light, it will give you the same exposure every time. Whereas when you’re outside, the sun’s moving around, there’s clouds coming in, the exposures are 20 minutes apart and within 20 minutes everything changes. I often have to move the set to follow the light.
“It’s a challenge but it’s a good challenge.”
Horst will be taking tintype portraits at these upcoming shows:
- Artfest at The Distillery, May 17-19
- Beaches Arts & Crafts Show at Kew Gardens Park, June 14-15
- Cabbagetown Arts and Crafts Sale at Riverdale Park, Sept. 5-7