When you walk into Old Town San Diego, you instantly feel like you’re transported to the past. And if you’re lucky enough to be there on a weekend, then you can have a truly unique and transporting experience by visiting Catherine and her father, Clement, who do tintype portraits on the porch of the Cosmopolitan.
I can honestly say tintype photography is unlike any photographic process I’ve witnessed or performed. Having taken film photography in high school, I loved watching the images emerge in the developing trays, but I feel like that even pales in comparison to the sheer magic that is tintype, and specifically wet plate photography.
Catherine already had a wonderful eye for taking photos as she was seeking her degree in Digital Photography when a friend told her about a demonstration of wet plate photography he had witnessed. When the opportunity to see it again happened, her friend invited her along. There she met Nick Hidek and Dave Smith, who would showcase the distinctive process of wet plate photography. “That day was the first time I would see this process and be enchanted. Nothing digital was to be used and everything was hands on,” Catherine recalled of the experience. Nick and Dave’s studio was in the mountains, where Catherine said it was peaceful and quiet, “I got to experience all that it took to make this process work and how people before us had to take photographs. I left that day feeling more inspired to learn photography with this process.” As luck would have it, Nick and Dave were also looking for students to mentor in Old Town State Park, which was back in 2013. Under the guidance of Nick and Dave, Catherine took portraits of other volunteers at the park.
The wet plate process was invented by Frederick Scott Archer in the 1850s, lasting about twenty years before falling out of favor in the 1870s. This means it falls perfectly within the window that Old Town San Diego represents, which, as mentioned in my post earlier, is 1821 to 1872.
After three years of being a volunteer she was offered the chance to set up her own tintype business, C.A.S. Photography, right on the porch of the famous Cosmopolitan.
Using the same camera her mentor learned on, a replica of a traditional sliding box camera, but with a vintage Voightlander lens dating to 1864 and made in Germany, Catherine and her father use the Cosmopolitan’s porch as their studio and a portion of the saloon as her dark room. The porch of the Cosmo is perfect for the process, Catherine explained, while also dispelling the myth of exposures lasting minutes. “When we set up in Old Town, we photograph within the veranda because it provides bright open shade, which is what works best with this process. With this lighting we can typically shoot at a 1-2 second exposure. What a lot of people don’t know, is that the age of the chemistry and the weather can play a factor on how long your exposure is. For example, if our collodion [a chemical used in the process, but more on that in a bit] is older than 6 months, our exposure time increases to 3-4 seconds because its old and slower to take in light. The process only works with blue and ultra-violet light, which comes from the sky. If we were to have an indoor skylight studio, our exposure could be anywhere 6-15 seconds, depending on how your set up the lighting. A great benefit of having an indoor studio is the privacy you have and the manipulation of light using shades and reflectors.” Catherine tackled the myth of the 15 minute exposure, “I’m here to tell you that it’s not true!” She explained that prior to photography, people had their portraits painted, which was a time consuming process, and more often than not, people didn’t smile in their painted portrait. “Getting your portrait taken was considered as grand as getting an oil painting done of yourself,” Catherine explained.
While of course shorter than getting your portrait painted, the tintype does have a fascinating and slightly time consuming process. “I like to say that this process is kind of the grandpa of the Polaroid. It’s an instantaneous photograph, just done on a piece of metal or glass,” Catherine began in elaborating on the process. “The first step is creating the light sensitive emulsion that’s going to go on our metal plate. We pour on a thin layer of collodion that covers the surface of the plate, and pour the excess back into its bottle.”
Catherine must wait a few seconds for the collodion to become tacky before taking it into the darkroom. It is here where Catherine’s set up at the Cosmo is truly amazing. She has a small tent darkroom set up, with a red tinted window, which allows people to witness the process. Inside the darkroom she inserts the metal plate into a solution of silver nitrate for three minutes.
During the plate’s three minute silver nitrate bath, she and her father compose their subject. Then they return and take the plate out of the silver, wiping off the excess before placing it into the plate holder. The plate holder acts like your roll of film, however it’s one shot. The holder has a slide that covers the plate from being exposed. “We do one final focus and put on the lens cap and put the plate holder into the camera, pull the slide out, that exposes the plate to the inside of the camera, and open our lens cap to take the picture.”
Once the plate is exposed it is taken back inside for developing. “To develop we pour on the plate a mixture of glacial acidic acid, alcohol, and ferrous sulfate, and within seconds a negative image starts to appear,” Catherine explains, “When we feel the negative looks good, we use water to stop the process and wash it well before exposing it to normal light outside of the darkroom.”
“What comes next is the magic part,” Catherine says after the bringing out the negative, and I couldn’t agree more! Outside of the darkroom she has a tank filled with diluted potassium cyanide, which features a window to watch the transformation of the negative image become a positive.
Catherine washes the plate and lets it sit out to dry. The final step is to varnish it. Without varnish the image would eventually tarnish because it is made using real silver.
The end product is a truly unique souvenir of Old Town. As Catherine said earlier, it is like the “grandpa of the Polaroid” as the negative becomes the photograph, and it is one of a kind.
When I first met Catherine a couple years ago, I was in awe of her and I still am. I love the fact someone so young is keeping a truly magnificent art form alive and in the perfect place. “I have had people tell me that it was really exciting to have someone in Old Town practicing this and sharing it with others,” Catherine noted of visitors of Old Town seeing her and her work.
I asked Catherine what her favorite thing about wet plate photography was, and she reflected on the history and innovations of photography, “My favorite thing is seeing all of the inventions of the camera and its parts that past photographers have built. It never ceases to amaze me how they came up with all of the darkroom formulas and different ways to build a camera. My father and I love to figure out the ways of how they made things and looking at old photography studios to see what they did so one day I can have my own studio set up just like theirs. Without the invention of this process, it wouldn’t have led the way for more things we have in our lifetime like film photography and motion pictures.”
Catherine also has an E. & H.T. Anthony Champion Camera to take stereo image tintypes. And if tintypes are the grandfather of the Polaroid, the stereoscope is the grandfather of the Viewmaster. Unfamiliar with stereoscope? Read up on it via Wikipedia and from the Smithsonian.
Next time you’re in Old Town San Diego State Park look for Catherine and her sign, which was inspired by a fellow female tintype photographer, Frances Benjamin Johnston. Even after all I’ve said, I still feel like I haven’t done Catherine, her father, and their work justice. She and her father are very sweet, and their passion for this art from shines through as they talk about the process and history of photography.
Find Catherine and Clement and have your tintype portrait done on weekends on the porch of the Cosmopolitan at 2660 Calhoun Street in San Diego.