Friday, October 27, 2017

For Charleston TinTypist, work-of-art photography isn't a snap

Christine Eadie, the Charleston TinTypist, explains the old-time photographic process.
Before the tintype is "fixed," it appears as a negative.
Eadie "fixes" the image, turning it from a negative to a positive.
Eadie's nearly complete image of Center For Civil War Photography Image of War attendees.
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On an unseasonably hot October afternoon in Charleston, S.C.,  60 Center For Civil War Photography Image of War seminar attendees gathered in the shade of a huge tree next to the historic Old Exchange. Twenty feet away, Christine Eadie pulled the cap on her vintage wooden camera for about three seconds, exposing an aluminum plate coated with collodion and silver nitrate.

Then the real magic began.

Eadie, the Charleston TinTypist, hustled over a cobblestone street a short distance to her portable darkroom, where she developed the plate in a bath of chemicals. As the image of the CCWP group slowly appeared on the plate as a negative, she washed off the developer using distilled water, stopping the development.

When Eadie brought the plate out of the darkroom, she "fixed" the photograph, turning it from a negative to a positive image before our eyes. Once the plate was dry, she varnished it to seal it and protect it from the air. (For an in-depth take on Eadie's process, go to her web site here.)

For the Charleston TinTypist, the photograph was one of her biggest challenges -- the Australia-born artist, who has been shooting tintypes since 2013, had never created a single image of so many people. But the final product dazzled at least one amateur photographer, who prefers an iPhone and picmonkey to create his "tintypes." It takes 35-40 minutes for a work-of-art tintype to be created by Eadie, who recently answered five of my questions about her remarkable craft.

You travel to re-enacting and living history events throughout the Southeast, photographing people at those events. What is that experience like?

Christine Eadie's finished product, a tintype of five Confederate re-enactors.
Eadie: It's been fun! The people I meet are generally really wonderful people. I've made a lot of new friends just by travelling around. What I love about working with the people at these events is the fact that most of them already understand what I am doing and they appreciate my efforts. I also meet a lot of spectators who are photographers who are fascinated with the process. I have had a chance to travel to places I've never been to before. In the last couple of years, I have traveled up and down the East Coast and made hundreds of tintypes. It's amazing to me how many people at these events tell me they follow me on Facebook.

I find it interesting that I am often met with a lot of pre-conceived notions -- people assuming I hadn't done any photography before I got into making tintypes. I was shooting film from the age of 11 and did commercial digital work (portraits, weddings and fashion) before I ever learned how to make tintypes. I've also been exhibiting my artwork in galleries for over 12 years. People seem so surprised when I tell them that. I guess because most Civil War photographers were first reenactors who got into the process that way. I was the opposite.

Of course, there are many challenges involved with doing the wet-plate process at a three-day event in the middle of nowhere. Most people don't realize just how challenging it is. Usually these events are held in a field or at an old battle site. Not only do I have to bring along a portable darkroom -- chemicals, camera, backdrops, props, etc. -- but I have to be as period correct as possible and sleep in a tent and put up a canvas canopy for shade. The chemicals can act a little crazy sometimes in the hot humid summers in the Southeast. I have to put my chemicals on ice in the summer. It's one of the most technically challenging photographic processes in the best of circumstances. Contrary to what some people believe, it is not all that financially rewarding even when you're at the top of the field and going to the biggest events. Many photographers have given up going to reenactments altogether because it's just so much trouble for very little financial gain. I'm going to stick with it for now and see how it goes.

"... in a roundabout sort of way, I feel as though I have
already photographed Lincoln," Eadie says.
(Library of Congress)
If you could go back in time, what would your approach be to photographing Abraham Lincoln?

Eadie: I'd probably be extremely nervous about photographing a real president. I'd look at other portraits that had been made of him before and try to do something a little different. I did photograph a man who does a very good Lincoln impression. He has been reenacting for many years. When commissioning me to make his portrait, he said, "I have been photographed by just about every tintype photographer there is who goes to reenactments. Let's see how you do!" No pressure or anything. Of course, I really tried hard to make a great picture for him. Thankfully I must have done a good job because he loved the picture so much he put it on his business card. He came back the following year and had another one made. So in a roundabout sort of way, I feel as though I have already photographed Lincoln.

If you could ask Civil War photographers Alexander Gardner or Mathew Brady questions, what would those be?

Eadie: Honestly, I'd probably be more interested in checking out their set up and look at their gear! Based on what I'd see, I'd probably ask boring technical questions. I would ask them for any advice they could offer.

"It would pain me to see these soldiers
and their wounds in real life,"
Eadie says. (Soldier image from
National Museum of Health and Medicine)
Some of the more poignant Civil War portraits are of soldiers with grievous battlefield wounds. What approach would you take if you photographed such a soldier? 

Eadie: I haven't really thought about that before. Had I been offered that commission, I probably would have turned it down because it would upset me to see the wounds. I am very squeamish. It would pain me to see these soldiers and their wounds in real life.

Is there a Civil War photograph you especially admire, and why?

Eadie: I admire good photographs no matter when or where they were taken. I have a couple of books of Civil War photography, and I have to admire the technical expertise of some of the photographers. It takes a lot of practice to get to the point of making clear and clean wet-plate images out in the field. I can't really think of any particular photograph that really sticks out in my brain. I prefer portraits in landscape settings or in camps that show how life was back then. The posed portraits are great, too, but you can learn so much more from the more candid pictures of camp scenes. I like it when I see some motion blur from flags waving in the wind or anything out of the ordinary. Photographs that tell a story are my favorite.

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