“When a man is one of a kind, he will be lonely wherever he is.”
The first thing to say about tintypes is that if you were rich, famous or notable you didn’t sit for one. They were strictly for the common people, and just about everyone who posed remains anonymous today. The same can be said for the photographers. We have plenty of information about studios that offered tintypes but since they didn’t identify themselves on the print but the paper casing, which was often discarded, here we are, over 150 years after tintypes were invented with a huge but scattered record of our ancestors, whoever they were.
Looking through America and the Tintype (2009, Steidl) we find on one of the cover pages an advertisement from Ormsbee’s First National Gallery offering eight carte de visites for 50 cents or 18 ferrotypes (aka tintypes) for the same price, all taken with the “improved patent multiplying camera”. Consider the peculiarity of economics. The carte de visite could be reproduced ad infinitum but for less than half the price you could get a unique portrait, the only one that could ever authentically exist. It says something about the business of photography in the 19th century that uniqueness had no intrinsic value.
From the New York Times of June 27, 1875 comes a story about the Rogues Gallery held at police headquarters; hundreds of tintypes of convicted felons. “Here are hard, careworn faces, the dissipated look, the shrivelled up hands, the ragged clothes, and the ‘hunted down’ expression of the eyes which a thief can never get rid of.” The writer of the article looks at the murderers, pickpockets and housebreakers and wonders where all the dashing criminals of popular fiction might be among the faces. Rogues galleries weren’t so much records of crime as poverty and wealthy tax evaders and wife killers were seldom expected to sit for them. Here are two men who look like they wouldn’t be averse to a spot of petty crime. Something about the glazed stare of the one on the right suggests this wasn’t the first bottle they have shared today.
Also from the New York Times, twenty years earlier on December 21 1865, comes these recommendations for Christmas gifts:
“At FOUNTAIN's India Store, No. 858 Broadway, Chinese, Indian and French fans, embroidered work, mull dresses, &c.;
At Dr. SARAH A. CHEVALIER's, No. 1,123 Broadway, a preparation for promoting the growth of the hair, and for restoring it to its original color.
At BAXTER's Gallery, No. 812 Broadway, near Twelfth-street, admirable ferrotypes;”
The idea of giving a portrait of yourself as a gift sounds odd today, but that’s only because we are familiar to the point of being anaesthetized with photography. In 1865 most people hadn’t sat for their portrait; ‘likeness’ was the more common term. It was the new technology that was really fascinating.
Collectors won’t normally give a second glance to a damaged carte de visite but scratches and other flaws don’t detract from tintypes. It has something to do with the authenticity of the image. No idea where this was taken but most likely at a seaside resort. She looks like she is dressed for a Victorian holiday by the sea.
Two actual cowboys, the proof being they aren’t carrying guns. Both look somewhat perturbed by the portrait sitting, as though this is the first time they have done it. Compare them to the two below …
… More relaxed, better dressed but they look like they come from the same part of the world, which is to say not New York or Chicago. Notice how the man on the left and the two above appear, at first glance anyway, a but rough around the edges but look closer and you realize they’ve paid careful attention to their appearance.
Most of the photos here have two people in them. It’s a reminder that going to the photographer was a social activity best done with friends, and it probably wasn’t spontaneous. People planned for it and spent time preparing. They became actors on a stage.
A good example of a later tintype, probably taken around 1900, with the portrait framed inside a card. As photographic processes go, the tintype lasted longer than most, still popular in the 1930s 60 years after its invention. Why that was is a small mystery. It’s original attractions, speed and cheapness, were more or less redundant by the turn of the century when it was possible to shoot, develop and print a photo in minutes and at much less cost. Maybe what really attracted people to tintypes was that there could only ever be one of them. Maybe in the age of mechanical reproduction people valued them as art.