Everything old is new again for Salida tintype photographer Tim Brown

Editor’s note: An untold number of unheralded artists live in Colorado, those creators who can’t (or don’t want to) get into galleries and rely on word of mouth, luck or social media to make a living. You’ve likely seen them on Instagram, at festivals or at small-town art fairs. This monthly series, Through the Lens, will introduce you to some of these artists.

Tintype photographs conjure up images of the Old West or soldiers heading out to fight in the Civil War. They evoke a sense of history, nostalgia and a glimpse into the past.

Salida-based Tintype photographer Tim Brown said the process, which was developed in the 1850s, was practically extinct 20 years ago. With the heavy cameras, use of complex chemicals, a complicated multistep procedure and the development of newer camera equipment, the art form was disappearing quickly.

But it is experiencing a renaissance, Brown said.

“People are always blown away by the wet plate process, especially when they see their portrait develop in front of their eyes in the darkroom,” said Brown. “The emotional response to witnessing your tintype come to life can be very compelling, even cathartic. I’ve had clients in tears in my dark room.”

Clients end up with a unique photograph made of silver on tin that they get to take home with them.

“Tintypes can last hundreds of years. My portraits become heirlooms that will be passed down for generations to come. How cool is that? I love offering something tangible to my clients versus digital files that you can’t really touch.”

We asked Brown some questions about his craft. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Q: How would you describe your art?

A: Unique and compelling. The portraits are created using a wet plate collodion process called Tintype photography. It was invented in England by Frederick Scott Archer in the 1850s. Many images from the Civil War were Tintypes.

As little as 20 years ago, there were just a handful of people in the entire world doing this. Because it had gone by the wayside, there were only books and notes from the late 1800s that described the process and how to do it.

The chemicals used are very toxic and dangerous if handled improperly and this, I believe, is what keeps a lot of people away from learning. There are now workshops available, and wet plate collodion businesses that sell the chemicals and supplies.

Q: Briefly explain your process.

A: Before plastic and film, photographers would prepare a plate in the darkroom (metal=tintype, glass=ambrotype) using chemicals to make the plate a light-sensitive negative. The plate is then inserted into a lightproof holder, placed in the camera for exposure, then developed in the darkroom. This process involves coating a piece of tin with liquid silver and other chemicals, to create a light-sensitive negative. The negative is then exposed using my vintage cameras and lenses (hand-made in Europe in the mid-1800s) that I have collected over the years.  Once exposed, the negative is developed using the historic chemical process to create stunning, one-of-a-kind portraits. The process takes about 10 minutes. If the plate dries before it is developed, it will not turn out. So all tintypes must be created, exposed and developed fast before the plate dries. After the plate is washed and dried, it is varnished to protect the plate from tarnishing and/or damaging the silver. The end result is a photograph made of silver on tin that will last hundreds of years.

In taking the images, the process can be cumbersome. The field cameras are large and clunky. There is nothing automated about the cameras, they are 100% manual. Focusing is difficult and composition takes time. Exposures are long. Typically I’m exposing my plates somewhere between two and eight seconds. Any movement with the camera or the subject and everything will be blurry. This process reacts to light much differently than modern photography. It’s most sensitive to ultraviolet light. Among other things, that means that anything on the cool or blue spectrum goes lighter and anything in the warm or red spectrum goes darker. This can really affect the tones in the image.

Things can easily go wrong. Temperature, humidity and contamination all play a role in maintaining your chemicals, and sometimes issues come out of nowhere and take a while to figure out.

Q: How do you work?

A: I use my studio almost like a theater space. Clients have a selection of items from hats, clothes and other things they can dress in to make the photos more interesting, fun or dramatic. Oftentimes they bring their own items to wear. This helps clients create personalities for their images. I have done pop-ups in a field where clients want on-location images.

Q: What’s your background?

A: I’ve been a self-taught professional photographer for 41 years. Before wet plate collodion, I specialized in adventure travel photography for the commercial and editorial markets. My interest in photography was greatly influenced by my father, who was an avid amateur photographer. I received my first camera when I was 12, by 16 I had a darkroom in my basement and by 21 I left home to pursue adventure photography in Colorado.

Q: How did you transition from adventure photography to tintype?

A: When digital photography arrived, so did approximately 22 million new “pro” photographers. Competition is fierce and everyone’s looking to make a buck. All of this really affected my business as an adventure travel photographer. One by one, I lost a lot of my longtime clients as they could find their photography for much cheaper, or even free. Before digital photography, I did a lot of darkroom work with film. I missed the handmade aspect of photography. It makes each image unique and one of a kind.

In 2014, after opening a studio and gallery in downtown Salida, I began building a darkroom and started focusing on wet plate collodion (tintypes) and film photography. After five years of perfecting the tintype process, and COVID, I sold my downtown gallery and moved my studio to my home just outside Salida to pursue tintype photography in a natural-light studio that I built on-site.

Q. Where can we see your art?

A: On my website (timbrownphotography.com), Instagram (timbrownphotography), Facebook or at my studio. Or the occasional show at an art gallery.

Q: What is the price range (or average price) for your works?

A: Prices for tintype portraits start at $98 and go up.

Q: Do you have a favorite art piece? How about one that isn’t yours?

A:  I have a vintage cowboy print from 1920 taken in Salida that I love.

Q: What did your parents say when you told them you wanted to be an artist?

A: Ha ha, my father told me to get into business and sales. He questioned what I was doing in a small, desolate (at the time) mountain town taking pictures and running around in the wilderness.

Q: What one thing bothers you about being an artist?

A: The occasional feeling of being underpaid for what I do. The competition, where so many photographers copy other photographers’ styles and techniques, versus creating that on their own. Tintype can easily be “mimicked” on the computer or through filters on phones. True tintypes can’t be made on computers. Part of the beauty of the image is the very process that it takes to make it and the fact that there is only one image when done.

Q: What advice would you offer to beginning artists?

A: Be passionate about what you do. Be playful with your art; it doesn’t always have to be about making money.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A tintype project documenting six men and women as they struggle through the hardships of divorce and being single again. I hope for an October opening in Salida.

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