Top of page

Tintype photographer at the World’s Fair at Tunbridge, Vermont. Photo by Jack Delano, Sept. 1941.

Material Matters | Considering the Tintype

Share this post:

In this age of born-digital photography, the tintype is a curiosity for many. A photograph on metal may seem lightyears away from the bits and bytes that make up a contemporary digital image. But in its time, the tintype—a version of the wet collodion process—allowed photographs to be produced efficiently and in a matter of minutes.

The making of tintypes is very similar to that of wet plate glass negatives, but the tintype’s support—a thin piece of dark or lacquered metal, usually iron—helps render a positive albeit reversed image. Often packaged in a paper mat or neatly assembled within a leather case, the tintype was portable and less fragile than its photographic sibling, the glass-based ambrotype. Often, these images would be inserted into photo albums, like the one below.

Page detail from Album of tintype portraits. Tintypes, ca. 1860 and 1880.

Notice how the top right portrait is cracked, likely due to an issue with the image’s varnish layer, which was applied as the last step to keep the image stable and safe from oxidation. This deterioration illustrates the handmade quality of these images and the issues that can arise outside of standardized manufacturing.

Unlike earlier inventors of photographic processes, Frederick Scott Archer chose not to patent his wet collodion process when it was revealed to the public in 1851. This choice ultimately affected his financial security, but it did amplify the reach of the process, resulting in a boom for the tintype and the albumen print, which was often made using wet plate glass negatives.

Coating the plate. First position of the hands Second position of the hands. Woodcut print, 1878.

The collections of the Prints & Photographs Division are peppered with tintypes and other wet collodion materials, allowing visitors to our reading room to experience the ubiquity of these images, which were at the height of their use in the 1850s and 1860s before cartes de visite and cabinet cards supplanted them in popularity. Interestingly, the format didn’t completely die off and was often used for quick portraits in outdoor settings like fairs and amusement parks. In the image below from 1903, Frances Benjamin Johnston advertises her tintype services at a county fair, with examples of her work—housed in paper mats—on display.

County fair, tintype booth of Miss. F.B. Johnston, May 1903. Photo, 1903.

The paper mat was the perfect material for sending these images out into the world. Essentially a simple sleeve, it also served to frame the image and could be readily written on. This writing often captures information such as identities, dates, and locations and can contextualize an image that would have otherwise remained in obscurity. Thus, these details are a bounty for researchers looking to trace a subject’s trajectory through place and time. The information on this tintype mat not only reflects the date the image was made but also provides location data for the ledge that Mrs. W.R. Cody and Jessie Cody Osborn are standing on—Sunset Rock, on Lookout Mountain, which is in Tennessee.

Mrs. W.R. Cody and Jessie Cody Osborn standing atop Sunset Rock, Lookout Mountain, Tennessee. Tintype, 1888.

Distinctive paper mats around the image could also signify its status as a souvenir. The matted sample images attached to this Vermont tintypist’s camera below include the phrase ‘America Always’ and a symbol of a patriotic shield. Predating the bombing of Pearl Harbor by just a few months, the message on these mats would have taken on a different meaning in the aftermath.

Tintype photographer at the World’s Fair at Tunbridge, Vermont. Photo by Jack Delano, Sept. 1941.

While shooting en plein air could afford the photographer plenty of natural light—if weather conditions were suitable—portraits shot in studio still required extensive illumination. This was especially so considering the slow speed of the sensitized collodion. The necessity of such a source of light is often reflected—literally—in the sitter’s eyes. In this tintype, Harry Stafford, a friend of the poet Walt Whitman, has distinct white spots adjacent to his pupils from where the light source was shining. Something that could be easily digitally corrected in our contemporary times remains a unique aspect of these images.

Harry Stafford. Tintype, ca. 1870-1880.

Years before Photoshop tools could make unwanted photographic elements disappear, people who fell out of favor or love could scratch away the emulsion layer of the tintype, removing aspects of a person from the frame and thus changing the nature of the photographic memory. What was once a happy scene now survives to reflect a rift, a contentious uncoupling. Strangely, the haphazard and unsightly scratches on the image below invite more curiosity than had the photo been left alone.

Unidentified soldier in Union uniform with unidentified woman in dress. Tintype, ca. 1861 and 1865.

Because of its unique material format, the tintype lives on, both in historical form as well as in newer iterations created on aluminum sheets. Contemporary tintypists appreciate the chance to connect with a tangible process not reliant on ever-more-scarce manufactured film formats that continue to rise in cost. The image below, which I made in the fall of 2023, sits atop this newer aluminum support and champions the fact that the tintype is alive and enjoying a renaissance as a contemporary artifact of our times.

Hay Bales, Central New York. Tintype by author, 2023.

Learn More:


Comments (2)

  1. A fun and well-rounded look at this medium: (a) Examples from the heyday, including “un-friending,” (b) how-they-were-sold,” and (c) one by the blog-writer from 2023. Many thanks.

  2. Very interesting post, I am wondering if X ray scanning ( or other type ) could recover part of the removed image?

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.