The final transformation of a tintype portrait takes about five seconds. Durham-based photographer Riley MacLean thinks it’s like watching a Polaroid from 1850. In five “Mississippis,” the image flips from a slightly eerie negative to a beautiful likeness.
“I think it amazes people,” MacLean says. “It still amazes me, after a couple thousand portraits I’ve made. I’ve never seen someone not be excited about that.”
A penchant for photography has run in MacLean’s family for generations and he still uses some of his grandmother’s cameras. But MacLean came to photography in college after falling in love with the darkroom and seeing an image emerge from chemicals. After moving to the Triangle a decade ago, MacLean began experimenting with a new (or rather, rediscovered) medium.
“I realized, working as a professional, that I spend most of my time in front of a computer, and very little time in a darkroom, or making art with my hands,” he says. “I love digital photography, don’t get me wrong, I think it’s wonderful. But I missed that.”
To begin, MacLean devoured every resource he could get his hands on, including an early 20th century Kodak manual, and compiled a list of chemicals he would need. He planned to use the same large-format (read: boxy, supported by spindly tripod legs) camera he had used in college, but needed to adapt the film holder. Instead of holding film, it had to accommodate a thin sheet of metal. The glossy black metal turned out to be one of the more difficult items to acquire; MacLean buys it now in 10-by-20 foot sheets, and has it cut down. All of the tanks and chemicals required could be repurposed from either science equipment or traditional darkroom uses, but there were regulations around some of the chemicals (for good reason; ether, for instance, boils at 95 degrees Fahrenheit).
Finally, research done and materials gathered, MacLean set up his first test shot: a simple still life of a chair. It wasn’t perfect, but it held promise. The promise must’ve been strong, because after that first shot, MacLean says, a “hilarious amount” of test shots didn’t work out. He eventually found his footing, using a mix of old and new technology. These days, he opens up his orderly studio about once a month for tintype portraits.
MacLean’s voice, typically even and steady, becomes animated by two things: his work and his two Australian shepherds, who are padding around the studio during every session.
Tintype portraits begin in the darkroom, with MacLean prepping a metal plate, a fan whirring in the background. Sparing details to maintain some mystery, MacLean applies a combination of chemicals to the plate which become sensitive to light, ending with a silver bath. Once the plate is removed, the clock is on. The plate has to get into the camera, the focus double-checked, and then the shutter slides open, exposing the plate for a split second to the subject, who is engulfed with ten-thousand watts of light. After the plate is exposed, it’s carefully returned to the darkroom for more treatments: development (bringing out the negative image), rinsing and then one final bath to transform it into a positive image.
It’s a process that feels like magic, but MacLean compares it to cooking. Certain things have to be precise—down to a tenth of a gram—and others are to taste, changing (literally) with the weather. In the darkroom, some of the tools are basic household items, while others are combinations of hard-to-find ingredients. In the precise method of making a tintype, MacLean explains that the image is deconstructed, tactile and enduring.
“I wanted to make a photo that if someone wanted to airbrush, they’d have to hire a painter,” he says. “If you wanted it cropped, you’d have to take it to a metal shop.”
When MacLean began plotting tintypes, he loved the historical idea of a portrait: environmental factors are taken away, and you are left with the person themselves, pure and distilled. There’s an intense, no-lies-told result.
It is, as he says, “someone’s likeness, burned onto a plate.”
For more information about tintype portraits, visitrileymacleanweddings.com