Sunday, September 21, 2008

America and the Tintype

America and the Tintype is a catalog for the exhibition at the International Center of Photography, curated by Steven Kasher and Brian Wallis, with essays by Kasher, Geoffrey Batchen and Karen Haltunnen. The collection of tintypes was assembled initially by Kasher.

The tintype, a cheap process, with few of the pretensions of more established commercial studio photograph, is overlooked in most histories of photography, except as a footnote as a process which was derivative of the daguerreotype, or the ambrotype, but without any of the retrospective artistry now accorded these other processes: a cheap imitation of something better. It lacks the detail or contrast of the daguerreotype or ambrotype. Also, as a process with little value attached to it, it has survived often in a way similar to the once ubiquitous stereocard - tattered, dirty, & because of its metal base, often bent, the emulsion damaged. The tintype would have been encased in a metal frame, or a cheaper paper frame, & as we see on the scrap heaps of flea markets & junk shops, any supporting armature has been detached, or destroyed, & any personal history has been lost.

Stanley Burns published a rather lavish book of his collection of painted tintypes, The Painted Tintype and the Decorative Frame 1860-1910, which emphasizes the most lavish production of full-plate tintypes: painted over, often obscuring the photographic matrix of the image, and according, equally a value to the remarkable frames which were produced. Such images were "imitation" portrait paintings for the middle-class, which have a formality which can seem both grave & absurd, slightly not "of quality" although quixotically interesting as such. Painted tintypes can often resemble early American portrait painting from the 17th & 18th centuries, in their stiffness - flat, inexpressive, almost uncannily so.

The collection assembled by Kasher emphasizes qualities which are overlooked by the Burns collection, or by other surveys such as Heinz & Bridget Henisch's The Photographic Experience, in their antic, populist humor. The images are smaller (i.e. cheaper) plates, primarily, & involve scenarios of role-playing, posing, earthy jokiness, a sense of the ridiculous, as well as being quite "everyday" - memorial portraits, whether of athletics or deceased children, groups, the photographic moment now part of daily life. These are fragments of obscure but evident lives. It is a medium which has no masters or masterpieces, & which had a "mass audience" as opposed to the celebrity culture which used photographic studios to articulate a public persona - there are no statesmen or theatrical stars portrayed in the tintype, it circulated only in private circles; & as a cheap common medium which still necessitated a professional operator with skills, it was eventually made obsolete by the introduction of the Kodak camera in the late 1880s & George Eastman's accessing and creation of a huge amateur market.

The collection at ICP shows an unruliness & anarchic sense of the photographic image, far from any formal conformity. I think this is a truly admirable way to examine what has been more often considered plain old junk. The writing in the book emphasizes the tintype's place as a hybrid medium that is both artisanal & industrial, in a time of economic & political flux. There is a chapter about the "occupational" portrait which also brings up the growing obsolescence of the trades depicted, in their time. Along the lines of Susan Sontag's statement that all photographs are memento mori, I am also reminded that to photograph something or someone, is also in a sense to relinquish the original to nothingness.

Kasher & Wallis open up the tintype, basically a fairground amusement, as a micro-history of daily life & consciousness.

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