Monday, February 18, 2013

Examining a tintype from Des Moines, Iowa

The tintype depicted above was produced during the mid-to-late nineteenth century by a studio photographer in Des Moines, Iowa.  As with other case images (the daguerreotype and ambrotype), tintypes such as this were frequently hand-colored and displayed within a mat or frame.  

The tintype process was discovered by Hamilton Smith in 1854.  Smith was a chemistry professor at Kenyon College, and two students of the college became manufacturing competitors after the process was patented in 1856.  The first student, Peter Neff, shared in the patent rights and was the original manufacturer of the “melainotype”. The second student, Victor Griswold, began producing the “ferrotype” after the process gained popularity.  

“Melaino” means dark or black (referring to the varnish coating the support) and “ferro” refers to iron (the metal support itself).  These terms were used interchangeably and both provide a more accurate description of the process than the term “tintype.”  Rather than using tin, an iron plate is used as the metal support and coated in black japanned varnish.  This plate is first coated with black japanned varnish, then coated with collodion, immersed in a bath of silver nitrate, and exposed, and finally developed in progallic acid.  

The spectrum below identifies the iron (Fe) peak from the metal support and the silver (Ag) peak from the particles suspended in collodion.  Iron has a higher peak for maximum density (red) and lower peak for minimum density (blue) as expected.  The silver (magnified in the upper right corner) displays a higher peak for minimum density and a lower peak for maximum density.  The silver peaks are inversed because – as with ambrotypes – the photograph produced is actually a negative image (because it is developed on a dark surface, however, it appears as if positive to the viewer).  The maximum and minimum density readings from the Des Moines tintype were taken from the top and bottom edges respectively.  These edges were selected, rather than the center, to prevent the instrument from analyzing the paper label adhered to the backside.

Because this process was more cost-effective than a daguerreotype, less fragile than an ambrotype, and relatively quick to develop, tintypes became quite popular within the United States.  The tintype never did become influential in European countries.  But, after the carte-de-visite became popular overseas, tintypes in the United States started being mounted in albums and on cards.  A second major contributor to the long-term success of this photographic process was the rise of the American Civil War.  Working class families wanted to have their loved ones photographed before they left for war and could afford the price of a tintype.    

The demand for tintypes had decreased immensely by the 1870s.  The major downfall of the tintype was its flat appearance.  Since the highlights are never completely white, the images lack the luster and vibrancy of other photographs.  The tintype continued being produced as novelty images until manufacturers discontinued its production in the 1930s.

Kennel, Sarah, Diane Waggoner, and Alice Carver-Kubik.  In the Darkroom: An Illustrated Guide to Photographic Processes before the Digital Age.  Washington: National Gallery of Art, 2009.
Mace, O. Henry.  Collector’s Guide to Early Photographs.  Iola: Krause Publications, 1999.
Taft, Robert.  Photograph and the American Scene.  New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1938.

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