Thursday, August 28, 2003

Tintypes offer slice of history

Inexpensive 19th-century snapshots increased popularity of photography

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins
The Associated Press

They filled family 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 snapshot.

The American Tintype, at the Columbus Museum of Art through Oct. 12, displays about 150 tintypes from Ohio State University, Kenyon College in Gambier, 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 ... alongside a farm or on the road, or a resort spot along the beaches," Wagner said.

In one picture, a mother and daughter gaze calmly at the camera. Except for scratches and blotches on the photo, the two could be modern-day visitors to a county fair posing for an old-timey photograph.

In another, a Union soldier is seated with a nonchalant expression. His blue pants were colored in later, likely by the tintypist. In several, babies pose for the camera, lifted up by mothers whose hands and arms are hidden behind drapes.

Kenyon physics professor Hamilton Smith won a patent for the tintype in 1856, just 14 years after the first photographic processes were discovered in Europe, according to retired Kenyon professor Thomas Greenslade Jr., an authority on Smith.

Photographers could produce a tintype in about 10 minutes, convenient for soldiers on the move. The process invented by Smith involved coating a thin sheet of iron with a dark, asphaltlike 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; there was no tin used.

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

Tintypes were so common that they carried little artistic weight. Famed Civil War photographer Matthew Brady forbade his New York and Washington galleries to make them, Greenslade wrote.

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

"The more you look at them ... the more you begin to sense an aura about them that elevates them in your judgment," he said.

If you go

What: The American Tintype

When: 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday; 10 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Thursday

Where: Columbus Museum of Art, 480 E. Broad St.

Admission: $6; seniors and students $4; members free

Parking: $3, lot behind museum

Information: (614) 221-6801,

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