Harry Taylor Brings 150-Year-Old Craft of Tintype Photography into the Modern Day

Award-win­ning film­mak­er Matt Mor­ris appre­ci­ates craft, hard work and peo­ple who just show up for each oth­er.

His Emmy-nom­i­nat­ed film Pickin’ and Trim­min’ fol­lows the men who cut hair and play blue­grass music togeth­er at Drexel’s bar­ber­shop in North Car­oli­na. In Mr. Hap­py Man, an 88-year-old man talks about the hours he spends every morn­ing greet­ing Bermuda’s com­muters as they endure traf­fic.

The sub­ject of his most recent work came to him in a round-about way, but fea­tures the same care­ful, affec­tion­ate film­mak­ing of his oth­er films. Amer­i­can Tin­type chron­i­cles the process of pho­tog­ra­ph­er Har­ry Tay­lor, who dis­cov­ered a pas­sion for the Civ­il War-era “wet plate” pho­tog­ra­phy.

Tay­lor, based in Wilm­ing­ton, North Car­oli­na, spe­cial­izes in tin­types and ambrotypes. He makes them with the same big cam­eras and messy chem­i­cals used dur­ing the late 1800s. At that time, the process pro­duced a whole new lay­er of detail than ear­li­er tech­niques had done, and allowed for an infi­nite num­ber of prints to be made.

Time con­sum­ing, labo­ri­ous and unpre­dictable, the process requires the pho­tog­ra­ph­er to use a portable dark room when shoot­ing out­side of the stu­dio. Tin pho­to­graph­ic plates are coat­ed with col­lo­di­on emul­sion. (The tech­nique is also called col­lo­di­on process. There’s a nice tuto­r­i­al here.) The plate must be coat­ed, exposed and devel­oped with­in fif­teen min­utes, before the col­lo­di­on los­es its sen­si­tiv­i­ty. It’s an incon­ve­nient sys­tem, espe­cial­ly by today’s stan­dards, but it pleas­es Tay­lor immense­ly as it forces both him and his sub­jects to slow down. You can view some of Tay­lor’s images here.

Mor­ris allows Tay­lor to speak for him­self in the four-minute doc­u­men­tary, let­ting the cam­era linger on Taylor’s wood and met­al equip­ment, the dreami­ness of his images and on Taylor’s own obser­va­tions about how long-expo­sure pho­tog­ra­phy reveals more of the subject’s thoughts. Even the flaws are inter­est­ing.

Make a point to notice the music. Mor­ris approached com­pos­er Hanan Town­shend, known for the scores he com­posed for direc­tor Ter­rence Mal­ick. Mor­ris blogs about the process of record­ing Amer­i­can Tin­type’s sound­track at Marin County’s Sky­walk­er Sound—a fun lit­tle peek behind the scenes.

Kate Rix writes about dig­i­tal media and edu­ca­tion. Read more of her work at and thenifty.blogspot.com.

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