Thursday, August 14, 2003

Tintype exhibit celebrates Ohio inventor's idea

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins
The Associated Press

[IMAGE] A mother and daughter posed about 1895 for this tintype, one of 150 on display at the Columbus Musem of Art through Oct. 12.
(Associated Press photo)
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COLUMBUS - They filled family photo albums, dotted lapels during the 1860 presidential campaign and rewarded relatives eager for news of their Civil War soldiers.

Tintype photos, invented in Ohio, were a product of the industrial age that helped boost the popularity of photographs and set the stage for the age of the snapshot.

"The American Tintype," at the Columbus Museum of Art through Oct. 12, displays about 150 tintypes from collections at Ohio State University, Kenyon College, the Ohio Historical Society and the Library of Congress.

The photos bear the speckles and creases of age. But their subjects - women, babies, soldiers - are timeless.

"A lot of them were the kinds of images people like to see of themselves even today," said Robert Wagner, a retired Ohio State photography professor who curated the show.

Itinerant photographers took the pictures as they tramped up and down country roads or followed Civil War armies.

"They would take pictures of garden variety Americans, people who didn't dress up for going to a studio, taken alongside a farm or on the road, or a resort spot along the beaches," Wagner said.

In one picture, a mother and daughter in dresses cut partly from the same striped material gaze calmly at the camera. The two could be modern-day visitors to a county fair posing for an old-timey photograph.

In another, an unknown Civil War soldier sits with a nonchalant expression, his union blue pants colored in, likely by the tintypist. In several, babies pose for the camera, lifted up by mothers whose hands and arms are hidden behind dark cloths or drapes.

Kenyon College physics professor Hamilton Smith developed the tintype in the 1850s, winning a patent in February 1856, just 14 years after the first photographic processes were discovered in Europe, according to retired Kenyon physics professor Thomas Greenslade Jr.

Those first photos, known as daguerreotypes, were made by taking copper plates coated with silver and exposing them to the heated fumes of iodine, which created the light sensitive surface.

Those plates were developed by exposing the surface to fumes of mercury, which bonded with the silver to reveal images. The process was lengthy, complicated, expensive - because of the silver - and involved sometimes deadly chemicals, Wagner said.

By contrast, photographers could produce a tintype in about 10 minutes. The process invented by Smith involved coating a thin sheet of iron with a dark, asphalt-like substance followed by a coat of silver iodide to form the light-sensitive surface.

After exposure, the sheet could be developed with a variety of chemicals, usually much faster than daguerreotypes. Tintype is a misnomer; no tin was used.

In 1860, a patent was issued for the production of lapel buttons and medals bearing tintype portraits of Abraham Lincoln and his opponent Stephen Douglas.

During the Civil War, tintype photographers could take and quickly develop tintypes, preferable for soldiers on the move. Unlike daguerreotypes, which required a glass cover, tintypes were also easy to mail.

Tintypes were so common in their heyday that they carried little artistic weight. Art galleries snubbed them, and famed Civil War photographer Matthew Brady forbade his New York and Washington galleries to make them, Greenslade wrote in a 1971 history of Smith.

Despite the low opinion professionals had of tintypes, they are seen in a different light today, Wagner said.

"The more you look at them, and I think it's true of every photographic form, the more you begin to sense an aura about them that elevates them in your judgment," Wagner said.

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