The 19th-Century Version of a Polaroid

Before the Polaroid, there was tintype photography.

“You think this is it?” said Geoffrey Berliner — the left-leaning, wiry, animated executive director of the Penumbra Foundation — as we navigated through his amassment of vintage, rare and antique camera lenses. “Let me show you upstairs. There’re always more lenses.” His collection includes a number of lenses designed for tintype photography, including a Dallmeyer 3C Petzval Portrait Lens from the 1860s, a Cooke Anastigmat Series “O” Opic from the 1930s and an Oscar Zwierzena Plasticca Kunst Objective Soft Focus Lens from the 1920s. For Berliner, these lenses are more than just artifacts in a collection. He uses some of the lenses for taking portraits in the tintype studio of the Penumbra Foundation, one of the few places left in the country keeping tintype photography, the medium of choice for many portrait photographers in the late 19th century, alive and accessible to the general public.

Tintype photography dates back to the mid-1850s. The process involves coating metal plates in light-sensitive material, exposing them to light to create a negative and finally developing them in a chemical bath resulting in a chemically transformed metal image. Compared to other photographic methods of the time period, in which subjects were required to sit perfectly still for extended periods of time, tintype photography was an instant picture. “It’s frequently called the Polaroid of the 19th century because you could go in and have a tintype made in about 10 or 15 minutes. You could literally walk in and have the thing coated, shot and be out the door in 15 minutes.” Tintype fits into a genre of photography called wet plate collodion. This is because the metal plate must stay wet in order for the light to react with the silver halide solution that the plate is coated with. This is also what drives the expedited nature of the method.

The Penumbra Foundation


The Penumbra Foundation is a nonprofit organization that holds workshops, artist talks and educational sessions, including classes and portfolio reviews for artists, aspiring photographers and the general public. They have a number of different services available including studio rentals, portfolio reviews as well as a fully functioning tintype studio where anyone can have their portrait taken.

The main goal of the foundation is education. “We want to give away something, an experience, that will have impact on somebody — a young person,” said Geoffrey Berliner, the foundation’s executive director. “Hopefully, it will afford them the ability to have what I call a positive impact on the world. Through storytelling, through photography, through media.”

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In the darkroom, Jolene Lupo, tintype studio manager at Penumbra, poured a thick orange liquid out of a glass bottle and onto a metal plate, her hands wrapped in black rubber gloves. She then dipped the plate into the collodion solution, rendering it ready for use. Back out in the studio, Berliner positioned his subject with precision that could only have come from years of practice — the exposure to photographic chemicals, releasing of shutters and fixing of cameras reflected in his time-worn hands. He adjusted every key and fill light until each was just right. In order to keep their subjects still, Berliner and Lupo used an original 19th-century head brace. The lens attached to the camera, a Dallmeyer 3B Petzval portrait lens, was equally original, dating back to a similar time period. Berliner removed the lens cap, popped the flash and replaced the lens cap, all in less than three seconds. When the bulbs fired, heat flooded the room from their intensity, and the brightness left the subject blinded. Then it was back to the darkroom where Lupo developed the tintype portrait. She poured a measured amount of photographic developer over the metal plate, producing a photographic negative with tints of indigo and cyan.

After rinsing the plate in water to ensure all of the developer was removed, Lupo dunked the plate into a solution that turned the negative into a positive in what felt like a moment of magic. I asked Berliner if he ever got tired of watching the change. “Never,” he said. After the plates dried, Lupo varnished them to ensure archival quality and durability, mentioning that the plates would likely outlive all of us.

A small sample of Berliner's collection.

After the tintype demonstration, Berliner wanted to show us the latest addition to his accumulation of rarities — an American Optical Co. Scovill Manufacturing Co. wet-plate collodion 17 x 20-inch portrait camera. The camera was still attached to its original stand and dated back to the 1860s. Berliner is perhaps one of the few people to have such a camera in impeccable condition and have multiple museum-worthy lens options to fit it. He plans to put it to good use shooting tintypes in the foundation’s studio.

For Berliner, using his newest camera will be about more than just appreciating the medium’s history or indulging in nostalgia. He compares tintype to vinyl records, which still have an important place among audiophiles. “When you put a digital inkjet print from a digital camera up next to something that was photographed with film and then printed analog, you can clearly see the difference, just as you hear the difference between a digital file and a vinyl record,” he said. “When you have the opportunity to compare, it’s like, well, I like that a little better, you know? It’s like, do you like Velveeta or do you like a nice, ripe brie cheese?”

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