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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Canadian Visual Artists: Lorraine Roy

Lorraine Roy is a textile artist who creates vibrantly multilayered fabric collages and teaches workshops in her rural studio on the Niagara Escarpment near Dundas, Ontario.

Young Maple 2 textile by Lorraine Roy

Young Maple 2

I love the rich textures and colours of your work, especially in combination with your simple, elegant compositions. What is the unique appeal of textile as artistic medium for you?

No other medium has such richness and depth of colour and texture. Fabric is pervasive in our lives, yet it’s impossible to take it for granted because it’s got endless potential. I love all the techniques, from hand embroidery to machine stitching. It’s all about rhythm and it’s very meditative.

Would you still be a professional artist if you had to express yourself in a different medium?

I don’t really know – I did try painting a few times but felt intimidated by the blank surface. With fabric you always have something to start with, even if it’s only a texture. Also, I find the fabrics themselves inspire me, with colour, pattern or texture. They are irresistible. I might have taken up singing, had I had the opportunity when I was younger… but for now I just enjoy singing in the shower.

Portal textile art by Lorrain Roy


Your love of nature and you life-long interest in plant sciences first led you to a degree in horticulture and now fuel the process of your artistic creation – your main subjects are native Canadian trees, their varieties, seeds, and habitats. What is it about trees that you find so inspiring?

Trees are fascinating from so many perspectives: biological, mythical, spiritual, cultural, environmental. There aren’t many subjects that cast a wider net in the psyches of people all over the world. It’s an infinitely engaging subject. Not to mention, trees are beautiful in all seasons.

Do you purposefully avoid representing other subjects in order to maintain your distinctive focus?

Actually I don’t avoid other subjects at all. Over the years I have worked with plenty of subjects and forms like fish, birds, microscopic organisms, houses and towers, just to mention a few. I have focused most strongly on trees since my Saving Paradise Exhibition in 2002, but I’m open to anything, any time.

Paper Birch by Lorraine Roy

Paper Birch

You have been making art professionally for over twenty years and I read on your blog that you gladly embrace new opportunities for presenting your work to the world via the web and social media. What change brought about by these technologies do you feel had the most impact on your professional life or your artistic process?

It hasn’t changed my process but it has clearly increased my exposure and opportunities. It has increased the ‘surprise’ quotient of my professional life, with some interesting connections and cross-pollination with people from all kinds of backgrounds. It has also kept me more consistently connected with other artists and colleagues, which is so important when I’m spending long days in the studio on my own. Also, things happen much faster – I like that!

Shoreline Study #4 - Iron Line by Janusz Wrobel

Shoreline Study #4 – Iron Line by Janusz Wrobel

Your husband, Janusz Wrobel, is a photographer whose work also reveals beautiful glimpses of nature. Some of his images seem to me evocative of your textile compositions. How does your creative work influence each other?

I suppose we must influence each other to a certain extent. We were both well established when we met so I wouldn’t say there was significant change. We do support each other in our practice, which is a great advantage. For example, he takes my photos, and I do his copy editing.

Do you think you respective artistic processes inspire each other to look at nature in new ways?

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