Out of the Past

©Eric Retterbush

“It was love at first sight.” That’s how photographer Eric Retterbush describes his introduction to tintype photography. “I was hooked when in 2015 I saw a tintype a photographer friend had taken,” remembers the 40-year-old. “The high-contrast, high-resolution, black-and-white, silver-laden image on aluminum just jumped out at me. And the idea that he had created this unique photograph with only his own hands, like a painter working with a canvas, really enthralled and appealed to me.”

Retterbush, an adventure guide who’d long had an interest in photography and fine art, began researching the wet plate collodion process behind tintypes that was first developed in the 1850s. “The more I learned, the more I realized that this historic process, which pretty much had died out by the 20th century, demanded a thorough knowledge of light, chemistry, and composition. It was arduous, hard to master, and imperfections were part of the procedure. But the results made the work and the unpredictability of the process worth it. I wanted to learn more.”

©Eric Retterbush

After extensive hands-on research in which he explored the intricacies of the time-consuming wet plate collodion process and attending a demonstration by the noted photographer Luther Gerlach, Retterbush bought a battered and bruised handmade 4x5 Russian camera, two “ancient” lenses, and a selection of chemicals to start producing his own tintypes.

“They were atrocious,” he admits today with a broad smile from his cozy Flagstaff, Arizona, studio. “Maybe five percent of them were acceptable.” He admits that there are many ways to fail in the tintype making process; he spent the first year learning the wet plate procedure and the second year learning from his mistakes.

He didn’t give up. He sought other tintype photographers, who gave him tips on the complex series of steps involved in producing the images. “They were so generous, guiding me from mixing my chemicals, preparing the plates, and even helping me to pose my subjects,” he explains. “I came to realize that making tintypes is part craft, part ritual, and sometimes part dumb luck.”

Retterbush’s work got better. With patience, a better tool  (a Kodak 2D 5x7 view camera), two relatively newer lenses (one, a Voigtlander, was made in 1863, the other in 1916), and hours of practice, he improved enough to open a tintype portrait studio in February 2020. “I never felt comfortable taking photographs of strangers. This had always felt invasive to me,” he explains. “But I liked shooting portraits after I had gotten to know someone. So, making tintype portraits, whose long setup and processing give me the time I need to relate to subjects and get to know them, appealed to me.” He had a good reception to the recent tintype portraits he’d made and felt there could be a wider market for closeup portraits.

He laughs and explains, “However, I opened my business just in time for COVID-19 to shut things down. Here I was with a brand-new studio, all this equipment but no one to shoot. I spent weeks shooting lots of dead skulls and flowers—the mood of the times.”

©Eric Retterbush

On a whim, he decided to photograph his wife, Alyssa, a nurse who was working primarily with COVID patients. “She had so many amazing stories about her patients and the conditions at the hospital that we both decided it would be a challenge to see if we could convey that narrative via tintypes.” 

He shared the images on social media, and they received rave reviews. “People were blown away, and I knew we had something special,” says Retterbush. He began photographing other workers in the medical field, such as a flight nurse, a paramedic, and others, each wearing their respective uniforms or work clothes.

“Because the wet plate colloidal process takes time, this gave me the opportunity to speak at length with each of these workers, and I realized we were able to incorporate those feelings immediately into the photographs,” he explains. He made more than 120 tintypes in seven weeks.

©Eric Retterbush

He called this series “Resilience: A COVID-19 Frontlines Portrait Project.” To Retterbush’s amazement and delight, it was quickly picked up and published by The Washington Post. As he noted in the piece, “Tintypes won’t fade for hundreds of years: they will outlast most other mainstream forms of photography. In the distant future, I want people to look into the eyes of these workers and find their courage as well as their struggle. I want people to see the resilience we generated in the face of this virus.”

The series brought a lot of much-needed publicity—and eventually work—to Retterbush. “It was a huge event,” he admits. Portrait assignments started heating up. He completed another series, on Diné (Navajo) doctors treating COVID-19, which was published in Smithsonian Magazine.

“I really enjoyed the work on these projects, and their editorial use has made me realize there may be more possibilities than just portrait work with tintype photography,” he says.  He knows many people choose the tintype because it’s so different from modern photography, but he’s hoping to get away from the novelty aspect of the genre. “I am open to exploring more editorial assignments and commercial work. Suddenly, it is an exciting time to be a tintype photographer. I’ve said that historic times call for a historic process.”

©Eric Retterbush
©Eric Retterbush

He estimates there were perhaps a few hundred photographers working with tintypes when he began; now there may be a few thousand. “People are getting more familiar with tintypes every day, and I feel they are becoming more mainstream,” says Retterbush. He smiles and adds, “There is even a tintype tool on [post-production] filters, and people are mimicking the look. But I can pick out the imitators immediately.”

His subjects’ reactions to being part of the process continue to delight Retterbush: “The experience is so different from other photography. It’s slower, we’re making only one image at a time, and we spend a lot of time on the front end talking about posing (subjects may have to sit still for between one and 20 seconds), lighting, props, etc. People become really engaged.”

Retterbush’s darkroom is inside his studio, within six feet of the shot, so people are seeing the back end of his procedures. “People are smelling the smells, seeing me do the chemical pours and other techniques,” he says. “All of this would normally be done in the Kodak factory where they would make the film, etc. But I am the factory and the photographer. So, it is incredibly intimate.”

Then, as he explains, “It’s magic time.” Retterbush and the subject can watch the image pop out in the developing tray and appear as if by sorcery. “It never fails to thrill both me and my subjects. It is the miraculous moment that always elicits an ‘Oh my god!’ or a ‘Wow!’”

“It is also the moment,” adds Retterbush, “that makes all this work so worthwhile.”  

Robert Kiener is a writer in Vermont.