The irony of democratisation

Unknown photographer. Ferrotype. Collection of Cobie Hijma. (back)

I like to look at the tintype as the final product of the “iron age” of photography, signalling the end of inaccessibility and the approaching beginnings of a medium that, by today, is the most democratic of them all.

This beautiful thing, originally called the ferrotype, has in fact nothing to do with tin. A tintype (patented in 1856), actually, starts with a thin sheet of iron. One could get their hands on their very own piece within 15 minutes or so, from sitting to pocketing the end product. Also, it did not cost a fortune, opposed to other photographic techniques of the time. Before the Brownie would be invented (1900), this was how the less wealthy gained access to their photographs.[1]

Ironically, the democratic tintype also opened the doors for political gains. One might be tempted to say that this is where the usage of photography becomes a tool of propaganda. According to Mary Warner Marien, Abraham Lincoln’s presidential campaign in 1860 made use of a similar process to create the first political campaign buttons.[2]

Photography and its accessibility is an excellent indicator of changing times. It started out as a cumbersome technique for a few, with unique prints that could not be reproduced. By today, most people have a camera in their pockets that is also a powerful computer to edit the recorded images right away. Billions of pictures are taken each and every day. With loads of freely available YouTube tutorials, Internet access (or a good library nearby), a mobile phone and hard work, anyone might become a highly-skilled artist.

Funnily enough, we hardly print any photographs these days. A hard copy in a non-photographer’s household is almost as rare as a tintype in good condition—and those pieces that are printed by artists often end up behind protective glass in highly-guarded museums. Photography is, and probably always will be, the odd one out. The more accessible it is, the less tactile it seems to become.

[1] In the United States and Canada, at least. Despite its European origins, the technique seems to have reached much lower popularity on this side of the ocean.

[2] Marien, Mary Warner. 100 ideas that changed photography. Laurence King, 2012. 71

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