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Who is the Tin Gypsy?

August 5, 2011

The Idea:
The Tin Gypsy began her life as a tiny vintage travel trailer made in 1961. When I found her, she had been long unused, watching the weeds grow up around her in someone’s backyard. This project will provide funding for the ol’ girl’s rehabilitation and retrofitting for a new life as a fabulous Travelling Photographic Studio and Darkroom. The Tin Gypsy will be specially designed to facilitate the practice of antique photographic processes dating back to the 1850s. The processes that we plan to focus on include the making of tintypes (images on metal plates), ambrotypes (images on glass plates), as well as salted paper and albumen prints (images on paper coated with salts and albumen from egg whites).

The History:
This project takes its inspiration from the earliest practitioners of photography, who were as much scientists and inventors as they were artists. They used creativity and lots of trial and error to devise ingenious techniques for making photographs. What really draws me to the practice of early photographic methods, like Wet Plate Collodion and Albumen Printing, is the process. It’s a slower, more intimate and handmade experience than many modern photographic practices. There is a feeling of mystery and magic and a little bit of danger… mixing chemicals, coating plates, watching the images slowly appear on the metal or glass as the developer works- it’s all really amazing to me.

One of these early techniques, the Wet Plate Collodion Process (invented in 1854) must be completed within just a few minutes, before the light-sensitive collodion solution dries on the metal or glass plate and renders the image impossible to develop. In order to successfully execute this process, the photographer must have his or her darkroom nearby. In the 19th Century, some photographers wanted to take the wet plate process outside of the studio and into the field, so horse-drawn carts and buggies were retrofitted as mobile darkrooms.

Traveling portrait photographers were then able to wander the country with their mobile darkrooms, making photographs of people in the small towns and cities they traveled through. These portrait photographers produced small albumen and tintype ‘cartes de visite’ and cabinet cards that were very affordable and wildly popular for a time. Traveling darkrooms were also used by documentary photographers who wanted to travel onto the battlefield to photograph the soldiers and scenes of the Civil War.

It’s been an amazing experience for me to connect with the historical beginnings of photography through the study and practice of these antique photographic techniques. I love the distinctive appearance of the tintypes, ambrotypes, and albumen prints and each unique process of creating them. Each time I make a new plate or coat another sheet of paper to make a print, I know that the resulting image will be absolutely one-of-a-kind and handmade. And that’s totally awesome.

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