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Matinee: Ellen Leathers-Wishart Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

11 July 2020

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the 261st in our series of Saturday matinees today: Ellen Leathers-Wishart: Tintype Photographer.

This 6:52 video is narrated by portrait photographer Ellen Leathers-Wishart who practices the second oldest method of photography (daguerreotype being the oldest).

She fell in love with tintypes rummaging through thrift shops and antique stores during her college days collecting them. The detail on these old portraits amazed her. "You can see every pore in somebody's face," she says.

When she pans across her collection of the old tintypes, you see a portrait of humanity taken over 100 years ago.

She's been making tintypes for five years now after apprenticing with someone to show her the ropes.

"I do exactly what they did in the 1850s," she explains. She mixes the same chemical recipes used then and uses a Criterion 8x10 camera made in the late 19th century by Gundlach-Manhattan Optical Co. of Rochester, N.Y., and once used by Ansel Adams. She found it on craigslist in Portland, Ore.

The inevitable imperfections of a tintype are part of the charm, she says.

Her Ilex No. 4 Acme Syncro lens is early 20th century technology but her images, which pop up now and then throughout the piece, are certainly informed by modern taste. Old technology harnessed to modern eyes.

Tintypes, she explains, are peculiar photographs. They're orthographic to begin with, not separating red from black and seeing blue as white. So blue eyes are white and freckles are emphatically dark.

And they're unique. You create the medium when you take the shot. And you've got just once chance to get it right, although she'll repeat the process if something goes wrong (and don't bring your pet if it can't sit still).

She shares her enthusiasm for the magical tintype process with her subjects who watch her prepare the plate for exposure and stare in wonder as they see the exposed image come up in the fixer.

She walks you through her entire (and efficient) portrait process in the middle of the clip.

Wishart studied photography at Maryland Institute College of Art where she received her bachelor's degree. She has worked as an aerial photographer in Oregon and Texas. And she's also a trained carpenter.

That last skill came in particularly handy in 2018 when she decided she wanted to build a mobile tintype portrait studio on a 16-foot trailer.

We see a breath-taking time-lapse segment of her building the mobile studio. She used recycled materials with a floor made from a high school basketball court, for example. And building it herself she could design in exactly the features she wanted.

The inevitable imperfections of any tintype are part of the charm, she says. They emphasize that the portrait was made at a particular moment.

But she does scan them for each client, charging $75 for a 5x7 or $110 for an 8x10.

Small price to pay to have the best of both worlds.


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