Focus on the collection: Tintypes

Unknown (late 19th century), Family outside their House, c. 1860‑1900. Ferrotype.

Unknown (late 19th century), Family outside their House, c. 1860‑1900. Ferrotype, 16.8 x 21.9 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

 

The tintype process was first introduced in 1853 by Adolphe Alexandre Martin (1824–1896),i and was patented in 1856.ii Because tintypes involved inexpensive materials and were quick to produce, they were accessible to a wide range of people and quickly became popular. The tintype process was most commonly used between 1853 and 1930.iii

Also known as “ferrotypes,” tintypes are one-of-a-kind photographs. They involve a wet-collodion process — the same method used to produce early glass-plate negatives. Created using thin sheets of iron coated with a dark lacquer, tintypes can be identified by their milky-white highlights and dark black shadows. Hand-painted finishing touches, such as colour applied to faces or jewellery, are a common feature of tintypes.iv

To produce a tintype, an iron plate is covered with a collodion solution, and sensitized with silver nitrate. The plate is then exposed directly in a camera, and immediately developed in a darkroom. The images on tintypes are composed of small particles of silver halide, suspended in the collodion layer of the tintype. The tintype itself is technically a negative; however, the dark colour of the iron plate makes the photograph appear as a positive.v

Although tintypes were regularly produced in professional studios, travelling photographers also took advantage of the high demand for tintypes in the latter half of the 19th century. It was common for portable darkrooms to be set up in busy locations, such as fairgrounds or battlefields. These pop-ups became sites where people could stop by, get their photographs taken, and walk away with a portrait shortly after. Tintype photographers would often use a special “multiplying” camera that allowed numerous exposures to be made on a single sheet of iron, resulting in a format similar to modern-day photobooths.vi Due to their relatively small size and sturdy nature, tintypes were perfect for sending in the mail, carrying around, or sliding into albums.vii

Tintypes are susceptible to damage from prolonged exposure to light and humidity, and are prone to physical damage, including scratches, bends and dents. Storing tintypes in envelopes with an additional sturdy support is the best way to keep them safe.viii

Unknown (American ‑ late 19th century), G.B. (Portrait of a Girl), c. 1862‑1899. Ferrotype.

Unknown (American ‑ late 19th century), G.B. (Portrait of a Girl), c. 1862‑1899. Ferrotype, heightened, 2.1 x 1.5 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

Unknown (American ‑ late 19th century), A.K. (Portrait of a Girl), c. 1862‑1899. Ferrotype.

Unknown (American ‑ late 19th century), A.K. (Portrait of a Girl), c. 1862‑1899. Ferrotype, 2.1 x 1.5 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

Unknown (American ‑ late 19th century), F.L. (Portrait of a Boy), c. 1862‑1899. Ferrotype.

Unknown (American ‑ late 19th century), F.L. (Portrait of a Boy), c. 1862‑1899. Ferrotype, 2.1 x 1.5 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

Unknown (American ‑ late 19th century), E.H. (Portrait of a Man), c. 1862‑1899. Ferrotype.

Unknown (American ‑ late 19th century), E.H. (Portrait of a Man), c. 1862‑1899. Ferrotype, 2.1 x 1.5 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

 

Tintypes in the NGC Collection . . .

Tintypes in the National Gallery of Canada collection offer a glimpse into the variety of ways people in the 19th century collected, stored and presented these unique objects. 

This untitled album (circa 1862–1899) features 48 “gem” portrait tintypes – a format typically sized at 1⅜ x 1⅔ inches (3.74 x 4.23 cm) or smaller.ix These portraits depict children and young adults, all posed in front of a neutral backdrop, and photographed from the same angle and distance. The portraits have been placed in individual paper sleeves, and feature handwritten initials on the frame above each sitter. Stored together in twelve sleeves, the content and structure of this album may suggest a use similar to that of a school yearbook.

“Family Portrait” (circa 1880–1890) shows a family of four, dressed in beach attire and seated in front of a painted seaside backdrop. This tintype is a great example of the sort of portrait that would have been made at a professional photography studio, rather than in a portable darkroom. Given its larger half-plate size (13.2 x 10.1 cm), applied colour, and gold case, this tintype was likely displayed as a special item in the family’s home. 

Unknown (American ‑ late 19th century), Family Portrait, c. 1880‑1890. Ferrotype with applied colour.

Unknown (American ‑ late 19th century), Family Portrait, c. 1880‑1890. Ferrotype with applied colour, 10.1 x 13.2 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

 

About the Author:

Emily Sylman is pursuing a Master’s degree in Film and Photography Preservation and Collections Management (F+PPCM) at Toronto Metropolitan University (previously known as Ryerson University).

 


i Bertrand Lavédrine et al., “Tintypes (1853–1930),” in Photographs of the Past: Process and Preservation, trans. John McElhone (Los Angeles, California: Getty Publications, 2009), pp. 34–38.

ii “Identification: Tintype,” Graphics Atlas (Image Permanence Institute [IPI]), accessed June 8, 2022: http://www.graphicsatlas.org/identification/?process_id=280#overview.

iii Lavédrine.

iv “Identification: Tintype.”

v Ibid.

vi Lavédrine.

vii “Identification: Tintype.”

viii Lavédrine.

ix  Ibid.

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