Anything to Get the Shot: Itinerant Photographers

“Look! Look!! Look!!! Tintypes. Cheap. Beautiful. Lasting.” The sign posted by the entrance to an elaborate temporary booth at a 1903 county fair sums up in a handful of words much of the appeal of the simple tintype portrait photograph.

County fair, tintype booth of Miss. F.B. Johnston, May 1903. Photo by Frances Benjamin Johnston, May 1903. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ds.06570

County fair, tintype booth of Miss. F.B. Johnston, May 1903. Photo by Frances Benjamin Johnston, May 1903. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ds.06570

[African American woman holding a basket] Tintype, circa 1870. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.10992

[African American woman holding a basket] Tintype, circa 1870. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.10992

From the latter half of the 19th century until nearly the middle of the 20th, one of the easiest ways for the average American to obtain a portrait photograph was by approaching a booth such as the one above or giving their pennies to an itinerant or street photographer. The process, from posing for the camera to a finished portrait in hand, such as the one at right, required only a matter of minutes. And it was indeed, cheap, costing only a few cents for a likeness of oneself – or perhaps a child or sweetheart.

For decades, the tintype was the most likely result of such a transaction, as it could be created with minimal equipment on any busy street corner. The metal base (iron, not tin, despite the name) for the photo was far more durable than paper and so it offered a lasting photographic record.

As seen in the examples below, photographers set up on bustling streets to catch passersby, at county or state fairs or anywhere a crowd was gathering. Some had mobile studios, though few as elaborate as the one above. Not all itinerant photographers made tintypes. As time and technology marched forward, small photographs on paper were also available for sale. The practice of the itinerant photographer faded away in the 1940s, as more and more people owned their own cameras.

Street photographers, Little Italy, New York. Photo by Bain News Service. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.02979

Street photographers, Little Italy, New York. Photo by Bain News Service. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.02979

Tin-type photographer at Morrisville, Vermont fair. Photo by Carl Mydans, 1936 Aug. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a02572

Tin-type photographer at Morrisville, Vermont fair. Photo by Carl Mydans, 1936 Aug. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a02572

Steele, Missouri. A crowd in front of an itinerant photographer's tent. Photo by Russell Lee, 1938 Aug. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a23444

Steele, Missouri. A crowd in front of an itinerant photographer’s tent. Photo by Russell Lee, 1938 Aug. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a23444

Itinerant photographer in Columbus, Ohio. Photo by Ben Shahn, 1938 Aug. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a18478

Itinerant photographer in Columbus, Ohio. Photo by Ben Shahn, 1938 Aug. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a18478

Essex Junction, Vermont. Tintype photographer at the Champlain Valley Exposition. Photo by Jack Delano, 1941 Aug. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a36744

Essex Junction, Vermont. Tintype photographer at the Champlain Valley Exposition. Photo by Jack Delano, 1941 Aug. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a36744

Street photographer. Smithfield, North Carolina. Photo by Arthur Rothstein, 1936 Oct. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b28344

Street photographer. Smithfield, North Carolina. Photo by Arthur Rothstein, 1936 Oct. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b28344

Washington, D.C. Street photographer in front of the Capitol. Photo by Esther Bubley, 1943 Mar. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8d26795

Washington, D.C. Street photographer in front of the Capitol. Photo by Esther Bubley, 1943 Mar. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8d26795

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3 Comments

  1. Z. Latz
    April 8, 2016 at 6:23 am

    Beautiful finds! Thanks!

  2. rebecca remington
    April 11, 2016 at 10:33 am

    Really interesting article. Thanks for sharing this info.!

  3. Larry Baker
    April 18, 2016 at 1:20 pm

    as an old TV News Videographer love it I should of looked that good!

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