There are very few photographers in the word who are working with the antique process of wet-plate collodion tintype photography. What’s even more remarkable about Portland, Oregon photographer Clarke Galusha is that he learned the technique and created an entire solo gallery show of tintypes over just one Summer. He decided to focus on portraits of children for his recent show at Portland’s Newspace Center for Photography, photographing 49 kids over 36 days.
“It’s the parents’ reactions that I love to watch. Sometimes they are just quiet or overwhelmed, while others are ecstatic,” says Galusha. “The process tends to make the subjects appear older, and there is also a color shift: red appears darker and blue looks lighter. For example, a kid with wispy,reddish hair will appear to have a whole head of black hair. I think the parents might see themselves, their own parents, family members, or an older version of their kids in the portraits. It is a truly special experience to be a part of.”
I got to sit in on one of Clarke’s photo sessions recently and see how this magical process works. Invented in 1856, tintypes were the world’s first instant photo, hugely popular at places like fairs and seaside resorts, and much to my surprise the process can be completed in not much longer than it takes to develop a Polaroid, though with a lot more skill, patience, and involvement on the part of the photographer.
A plate of metal is first coated with a viscous golden liquid called collodion, followed by silver nitrate. It then goes into a light sensitive film holder which is inserted into the camera for exposure. Clarke uses studio lights so his young subjects aren’t required to hold still for more than a few seconds, rather than the 20 or 30 seconds exposure that’s required when shooting with natural light. Once the the metal plate is fixed, the image emerges slowly. At first it looks like a negative, then it becomes white and cloudy as if coated with Elmer’s Glue, and then finally the crisp image appears in what seems like one thrilling moment.
One thing that’s unique about Clarke’s tintype portraits is that unlike a lot of modern photographers working in antique processes, he is using the medium to capture the individuality of his young subjects, rather than to connect with the past or try to recreate something from a bygone era. He seems more interested in the intrinsic qualities of the tintype than its historic connotations. The rich contrast, the searing detail that’s captured. The children aren’t asked to dress in costume or to pose any particular way. The result is intense, almost piercing, capturing a serious side of children that is not often represented.
“Tintypes are a mirror image, a reflection,” explains Galusha. “In the tintype, you are seeing the person you have looked at in the mirror your whole life, not the person you’ve always seen in photographs. Because of that and the aging that appears to happen through the process, it is like you are viewing an intimate version of yourself.”
Clarke has recently acquired a mobile darkroom which will allow him to shoot outside. As a former mental health worker he would love to do a series on his former clients and he also likes the idea of doing a series of portraits of the elderly and retired neighbors in his neighborhood.
“I am an introvert; portraiture work gives me a chance to learn more about myself and connect with others,” Galusha says.