Tintypes in the age of its technological reproducibility 

Unknown photographers. Ferrotypes (tintypes). Collection of Cobie Hijma. (front)

About five years ago, I started buying vintage photographs. The idea was to build myself a reference collection of different photographic and photomechanical techniques, but it quickly became a guilty pleasure that I could spend of all of my money on (but probably shouldn’t). The two tintypes I chose for this blogpost I bought from an American seller. These objects are unique prints, for no negative was used to make them, as the technique allows for a direct (positive) image.

The title of this blog post refers to an essay written during the Nazi regime (1933-1945) by German philosopher, cultural critic and essayist Walter Benjamin (1892-1940). The essay, titled The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility (1936), had a great influence on scholars and philosophers in the cultural field and is still a mandatory read in many curricula of media studies. In this essay, Benjamin states that the aura of a work of art, “its unique existence in a particular place” (103), is diminished by its reproducibility. Benjamin argues that every work of art was reproduced in one way or another in the 19th century, but also that film and photography, both emerging in the 19th century, are in itself technologically reproducing media. The artworks created by means of these media, therefore, lack aura, because, as Benjamin writes, “[f]rom a photographic plate, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the “authentic” print makes no sense.”[1]

Benjamin surely has a point that photography[2] as a medium relies more on technology than for example painting does. This reliance on an apparatus to create a product (artwork) also changes the relationship between the artist and his work: the artist is no longer in full control, he has to make do with the possibilities the camera gives him to influence the way it captures the image. However, I do not agree with Benjamin that a photograph can never be an “authentic” print.[3] Indeed, one of the medium’s biggest perks is the reproducibility of the photographic image, but the medium was not invented with that goal in mind, nor is every photographic technique aimed at reproduction.

P. Denison Lapham and Alice A.Y. Cranston, relatives of George D. Lapham
The tintype, or ferrotype, was one of the first (more) widely used photographic techniques. Its heyday was around the 1860s-70s, being cheaper and easier to produce than its contemporaries the daguerreotype and the ambrotype.[4] Similar to these two techniques, the tintype image is captured directly onto a plate that was put into the camera. Looking P. Denison Lapham and Alice A.Y. Cranston in the eyes, you can see that the quality of the tintype image, even bruised and scratched specimens like these, is astonishing. The level of detail in the blacks is amazing, something that cannot easily be achieved without digital manipulation nowadays.

Something that should be a flaw, but that I actually really love seeing, is the damaged edge of the image layer, especially on the bottom of the picture of the boy. A tintype is composed of three layers: a thin sheet of metal, covered by a layer of black lacquer or enamel which in its turn is covered by the photographic emulsion. All the parts of the image that are black in reality, P. Denison Lapham’s jacket, his shoes and his trousers, are in fact translucent because the image layer is actually a collodion negative. The black lacquer layer behind it “fills” these parts of the image with black colour, making the image positive.[5]

Since the tintype is a direct imprint of light on a plate and not produced by means of a negative, it is a unique object. Even though the industry surrounding photography has always aimed at dependable materials and making it easy for the consumer to get consistent results with these materials, the tintype proves to me that there is room for aura in the early days of photography. These two tintypes were taken at the end of the 19th century, I suspect around 1880-1883 judging by the dates mentioned on the back of one of them and the age of the boy in the photograph. Looking at these children really does give you the feeling that you are looking into the past. These plates are over a century old and have been in the presence of the young boy and the young girl who are depicted on them. It has painstakingly been exposed (it is not easy to get youngsters like these to sit still for about 30 seconds), developed, fixed and even hand-coloured. If images such as these, one of a kind, having been in 19th century America, do not give you the feeling that you are looking at a “unique existence in a particular place”, then I don’t know what will.

Two monochrome portraits of young children, around 5-7 years old. One is a full-length studio portrait of a boy, sitting on a sofa. His hair is parted on the left. He wears a dark coat with a white shirt underneath, black trousers and leather boots. His right leg is tucked across underneath his left leg. The other is a full-length studio portrait of a girl, sitting on a kind of wooden fence. She wears a light-coloured hat on her dark hair, a white dress and black boots. Her hands are folded together, her legs slightly apart.

[1] Walter Benjamin. The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility. 1936. p. 106.

[2] And film of course but, for obvious reasons, I will only discuss Benjamin’s essay in relation to photography from now on.

[3] Benjamin, p. 106.

[4] Jan van Dijk. Handboek herkennen fotografische en fotomechanische procedés, Leiden (2011), pp. 97-98.

[5] Ibid, pp. 96-97.

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Unknown photographers. Ferrotypes (tintypes). Collection of Cobie Hijma. (back)

These two photographs are an excellent test of assumptions. Let me ask you right away: what do you imagine when you take a good glance at these two young beings? Envision a life for them, adding some details based on these beautiful tintypes.

In my mind, they could be siblings. Looking at their determined/pouting faces, I trust to see a strong family resemblance. I fabricate the scene in my head: photos taken by the same photographer a few years apart, then cut and placed by the same caring hands into the family album.

Flipping the pictures gives us some extra information, immediately messing with my hypothesis. Danison and Alice have different family names: not a brother and sister thus. They still could be cousins though, or something along those lines.  

Just like another Alice, the one in Wonderland, I am also no stranger to rabbit holes. After a little online research, I find the graves of Alice A. Y. Cranston’s daughter’s and husband’s, then finally her own in a modest American cemetery.[1] That young lady we see in the photograph was later married to George D. Lapham. The “M.” on the back must stand for “married”. On the other picture, we see “brother of D. Lapham”: the relations are clearing up.

A little further down the rabbit hole, I learn that Alice (1883, Nebraska) married George Day Lapham (1877, New York) on a hopefully lovely[2] summer day: 24th June 1903.[3] The Denison we see in the other picture is thus her future brother-in-law—or so he would be, if he did not pass away in 1901, just a couple of years before Alice and George’s wedding. It could very well be that they never ever met outside of the family album, the one that must have belonged to a descendant of George D. Lapham.

From this very album, one can find four pictures in Cobie Hijma’s collection. They were purchased via eBay a while ago. I wonder where the rest of them are. I can only hope that they ended up in good, loving hands.

[1] http://sites.rootsweb.com/~nyrensse/ceml2.htm, visited: 12th April 2022

[2] Sometimes, certain rabbit holes are blocked by paywalls I decide to leave alone.

[3] https://ancestors.familysearch.org/en/L6QQ-RWB/alice-yale-cranston-1883-1971, visited: 12th April 2022

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