Last weekend I was lucky enough to assist on a rather unique photoshoot. Having been put in contact via Sheffield Creative Guild, Leeds based photographer Jonathan Turner told me about a project he was doing involving a very old school method of photography. It’s safe to say I was pretty enthusiastic from the start in the initial email he mentioned glass plates and I actually squealed out loud.
As a teenager I spent a Summer working in a photography shop; using a machine to develop film and print photos, taking passport pictures, selling frames… these were my usual duties. But one day someone brought in a box filled with heavy glass plate negatives. I was tasked with scanning them and restoring the aged and damaged elements in photoshop so the owner had digital copies of the hundred year old(!) photographs. I spent two shifts on these and enjoyed every moment. Something about the age of the photos and being a part of their restoration so a new generation could appreciate them was thrilling to me. So the idea of being there for the making of a similar process was immediately exciting to me.
The method he was actually using is called ‘tintype’, and the image is created using light sensitive chemicals on a metal plate. Just a few days after that first email, I was helping him set up his improvised outdoor studio in Burngreave Cemetery (a place frequented by dog walkers and volunteer park keepers, not just dead people!). The dark room on wheels was my favourite part, and the bit that drew most attention (besides the beautiful old camera itself). He’d used an old pram frame and a box clearly made for growing (possibly illegal) plants to create a portable dark box for developing the plates. This meant that he could prepare the plates right before they went in the camera and then we could watch the image appear like magic just a minute after the photo was taken. Granted, its not the instant gratification we’re used to with selfies and snapchat, but this is a process from the 1800s so its pretty neat.
And the way Jonathan does it is pretty damn close to how it was done all those years ago. With its inexpensive equipment, speedy developing time and the fact that the end product was a positive image (rather than a negative that would need another process to create the final image), it made portraits accessible to the general public. Photographers would set up at fairs and carnivals, and snap families and couples on their day out, providing an instant memento.
Jonathan is hoping to use his results in a future exhibition, but the original plates get posted back to their subjects, so they also get a memento to keep. The images were commissioned as part of ‘Simple Stories’ project, “a series of Sheffield based events, actions and exhibitions” (for more info on that click here). I’m hoping to assist on future shoots, as this was the first of a few planned days of tintype-ing for Jonathan, and the magic never gets old for me. Perhaps I’ll get a chance to improve on my first attempt at this method and capture a slightly less eerie portrait of Jonathan!
Thanks to Jonathan for having me along and for letting me use his images in this post!