Almost 160 years since its invention, there are still no major publications written exclusively about the British tintype, although there are numerous titles discussing their American cousins. Even books focussing on historic photography at the British seaside often ignore them despite their considerable connection. Similarly British tintypes are rarely exhibited except as side notes to other techniques, although Photography – A Victorian Sensation exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh included a substantial selection of tintypes, both from the Bernard Howarth-Loomes collection and also from the National Media Museum in Bradford.
In contrast, in 2008 the International Center of Photography in New York staged a dedicated exhibition entitled America and the Tintype which featured several hundred examples from both the Permanent Collection of the I.C.P. and from private collections. Furthermore, the International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester, NY, includes a prominent display of tintypes directly adjacent to a calotype by D.O. Hill and Robert Adamson, firmly acknowledging the tintype’s relevance in American photographic history.
Although tintypes enjoyed huge popularity in the United States after their introduction in the late 1850s, they never achieved the same acceptance in Great Britain. The British photographic establishment quickly rejected the process and ignored its commercial practice, with one individual describing it as having “such a bilious tint” and being “unworthy of the present times”. Even in the 20th century tintypes were derided as “these hideous, cheap-looking pictures” by eminent historians Helmut and Alison Gernsheim and this dismissal within British photographic history has continued to this day.
Tintypes (or ferrotypes, as they are also known) are created by coating ‘japanned’ or varnished iron plates with liquid collodion, which can be sensitised, exposed, developed and fixed on the spot in a light-safe tent or cart or in a permanent studio. The relative simplicity of the process enabled itinerant photographers to use portable set-ups which could be quickly moved to a new location in order to find new customers. Although as historian Paul Cox describes, tintypes were “messy, smelly and cumbersome” for the photographer, with exposures lasting from just a few seconds to almost a minute, sitters could receive their portrait in minutes from start to finish.
Unlike the wet collodion ambrotype and the more expensive daguerreotype (both of which involved using fragile glass plates) the robust metal plates on which tintypes were made could withstand rough handling and therefore could be mailed across large distances. This durability was exploited by American photographers and their clientele through the outbreak of the American Civil War and the expansion of West, where tintypes flourished and were made for customers of almost all backgrounds.
In Victorian Britain however, tintypes were chiefly purchased by the poorest of the working classes as their only affordable option for photographic portraiture. The middle classes and the wealthier working class were already served by the more expensive carte-de-visite portrait and the tintype was typically disregarded by them except as a novelty to be purchased at the seaside. In fact seaside images are the most easily identifiable of British tintypes, which frequently lacked studio branding and whose makers remain anonymous.
Truthfully, the technical and aesthetic quality of the average British tintype often pales in comparison with their American equivalent. The focus is sometimes soft, pour marks or fingerprints are often apparent on the plates, the corners are roughly clipped and the edges are uneven. However, despite being overshadowed by their American counterparts, British tintypes deserve a re-examination in order to add important material to both the history and the historiography of photography.
The continued and unchallenged contempt towards tintypes, their producers and consumers ignores significant contributions to social and photographic history and also displays a disregard for the visual records of the underclasses. British tintypes can provide us with a glimpse into an under-researched and inconsistently recorded social experience and furthermore they provide a platform for people who were frequently voiceless in their own era.
Additional Tintypes from the Sheila Masson Collection
About Sheila Masson
Sheila Masson is a photo historian specialising in British tintypes. She recently curated an exhibition entitled “Victorian Britain and the Tintype Photograph” in Edinburgh, and is writing a book on the history of the British tintype. For more information or to contact her, please visit www.britishtintypes.com