Today I went to a meetup of the Knoxville Area Photographers Group to shoot the "Skirmish on the Holston," a Civil War re-enactment at the Ramsey House Plantation in South Knoxville, not far from the Holston River.
I noticed a "photographers booth." At first, I thought it might be one of those cheesy touristy things, you know, where you put on costumes and they shoot you with a sepia tint. Go to any amusement park and usually you will see "Old Tyme Photos," with a sort of western theme.
But no. Instead, it was something wonderful.
I met Mary Lou and Sam Reed, of The Vacant Chair Photography Studio, a photographer and a chemist, who were creating actual ambrotypes and tintypes there at the re-enactment. This is what photographers call "wet plate" photography, since they start with a glass plate dipped into chemicals, exposed to light, and then subjected to chemicals again until the iage is processed, and then varnished.
Gimme that old time
religion photography . . .
I chose to sit for an ambrotype. There process is described here, but what it entailed for me was being seated in bright light (magnesium flash was still another 15 years away), and trying different poses, while Mary Lou carefully focused the reproduction camera (as she explained, there are actual cameras from the mid-1800's, but most are not in working condition) - I noted that she wanted to make sure faces and things "lined up," which makes sense because the camera would deal with a wide aperture to capture as much light as possible and that means a shallow depth of field. While she was doing this, Sam was readying the plate for exposure. He would quickly bring it out, place it in the back of the camera, give me a three-second warning, and take off the lens cap. 35 . . . 34 . . .33 . . . 32 . . . the person must sit still for that amount of time (or shorter or longer, depending on the amount of light available - for the record, I was photographed under a bright, cloudy sky. When the exposure was done, the lens cap went back on, I relaxed, and Sam went into their 1800's darkroom to work some magic.
And this was produced:
I love it. Sure, I look like crap but now I know why so many Civil War era photographs have heavy lids and small eyes . . . they were squinting. It was a necessary evil of the process, and Mary Lou explained to me that in studios, they would hold reflectors beneath the people, in order to get light into their faces. I could not wear my glasses (notice them on the table beside me?) because it would have produced a glare - which makes me wonder, how many people of that time actually wore glasses but you never saw them because they could not be worn for these pictures? By the way, the process reverses images; hence why my "LIFE" t-shirt is backwards.
Sam and Mary Lou were telling me, they get a call for a lot of modern portraiture - people like the feel of the old wet plate process and for occasions like engagement photographs, I can see why. It's neat. It's cool. And Lord knows it is way friggin' more retro than Instagram.
|Mary Lou and Sam Reed of The Vacant Chair Photography Studio|
There is a reason why I chose to get an ambrotype rather than a tintype. First, the ambrotype is an earlier process than the tintype. Second, it was an ambrotype that figured into the story of a Gettysburg casualty, Amos Humiston. Found dead, he had no identification except for an ambrotype of three small children that he had clutched in his hand. Through that ambrotype, he was identified and his widow found. The story is not completely a happy one, but since moving to the South, I have a new affinity to stories of the Civil War and this one did, eventually, end well for the Humiston children.
Call me a photography romantic . . . who now wants to learn the ambrotype/tintype process.