Canadian Visual Artists: Horst Herget

Tintype portrait by Horst Herget

Portrait of me © Horst Herget

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.

Horst's studio setup including large-format camera, strobe light, canvas background

Horst’s home studio set up: large-format camera, strobe light, canvas background. Photo © Susan Brown

“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.

Tintype portraits from the Cabbagetown Arts & Crafts Fair by Horst Herget

Portraits from the Cabbagetown Arts & Crafts Fair © Horst Herget

Tintype portrait of a family by Horst Herget

Portrait of a family © Horst Herget

 

“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.”

Horst's purpose-built dark room: chemicals, development trays, drying rack , extra ventilation to deal with the strong chemical smel

Horst’s purpose-built dark room: chemicals, development trays, drying rack, extra ventilation to deal with the strong chemical smell.
Photo by N. Jubb CC BY-NC

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.

Horst Herget pouring collodion on the plate

Horst pouring collodion emulsion on a trophy aluminium plate.
Photo by N. Jubb CC BY-NC

“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.

Ambrotype of a reclining nude by Horst Herget

Horst ventured into ambrotype shortly after this interview. This image, inspired by Ingres’ 1814 painting La Grande Odalisque, is made on a plate of black glass. Black cracks formed where the emulsion did not adhere well to the slippery glass surface. © Horst Herget

“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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Danforth East Arts Fair – Highlights

Now that the excitement and the stress of my first art fair are behind me, here are a few impressions I took away from it.

Me in my booth at DECA Arts Fair

Photo by Roman Martyn

The Good:

– Wonderfully organized and promoted, the DECA Arts Fair was attended by crowds of lovely people and dogs who enjoyed the calm sunny weather, live music and all the great art on display

– Booth set-up went without a hitch and the weather was great so nothing got blown away overnight. Big thanks to my husband Derek for building (from scratch!) the display rack you see in the picture above and his help setting everything up, taking everything down, and the two practice runs we did at home beforehand.

– Met lots of other artists, had lovely neighbours in booths all around me, and got good practical advice from them about other local fairs worth participating in. The consensus seems to be that the Riverdale Art Walk and the Cabbagetown fair are both great, and that One of a Kind is worth the huge fee.

– Got lots of compliments, admiration and exclamations of wonder at my mosaics. People loved the coffee table especially, but everyone had their favorites. The starfishes were a hit with the children. Gave out lots of business cards. I imagine the kids will just make spitballs out of them.

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The first arts fair announcement for Fragmentalist

Danforth East Arts Fair logoGreat news received earlier this week: my application to participate in the Danforth East Arts Fair has been accepted.

The fair will take place on the weekend of Sep. 15-16, 2012 in East Lynn Park on Danforth Ave just west of Woodbine.

I will be making many new mosaic pieces over the summer – ideas for their designs are already jostling for attention in my head – which will be exhibited and available for sale at the fair. The starfish mirror, nearly finished now, will make a great centerpiece.

There will be lots of other things to prepare besides the art over the next few months: finding a tent to use at the fair, building display racks for the mosaics, practicing setting it all up, and other practical matters that will need to be figured out for the first time and with the invaluable assistance of my lovely husband.

The proposed booth layout is one of the things that had to be submitted with the application, so this is something I’ve already thought out and you can see the sketch of it after the jump.

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Fragments of Toronto: East Danforth

Yesterday I took a long walk around an unfamiliar part of the city just because I could.

back yard of an arty house

The most interesting back yard I stumbled onto on this trip

Even though I’ve walked extensively around the west and central parts of Toronto over the years, east of Jarvis or so is mostly a blank spot on my mental map. So I went east.

My favorite streets to explore are the residential ones – I love looking at different houses and imagining how people live in them and contemplating with horror or delight the remodeling choices they’ve made. So even though I walked a few short stretches on Danforth Ave, I mostly strayed a few blocks south or north of it in my westward trip from Woodbine to Broadview.

On Danforth itself, what I noticed were a couple of pubs which probably would’ve been favorite hangouts if we lived in the area, a restaurant called Cafe Frappe which I really wanted to go into, and a bookstore called Circus, which I would have gone into except it was too early in the morning and it was still closed. Also some neat old buildings with friezes and fancy plasterwork, a really grand Romanesque church and a parkette with a bust of Alexander the Great by which a group of old Greek men were hanging out, just like in the clichés.

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