How long would you wait for a photograph? In this time of ever-present camera phones, socially streamed experiences, and Instagram-ready moments, our patience for taking images is disappearing. While being able to share any photo at any time has its appeal, today’s photo ubiquity can easily lend itself to our collective dismissal of truly great portraits. For some photographers, this means returning to photography’s roots.
Ed Ross, a resident of Northern California, has been taking photographs for 25 years, and in the last six has used wet plate photography for his work. That’s right — Ross works with tintypes, a vintage style of photography developed in the 1850s that’s printed with silver on aluminum and varnished over. You may recognize the style from history books; tintypes create haunting, expressive portraits reminiscent of a bygone era and a time when imperfections were embraced.
Ross works with both a half-plate box style and bellows style camera and makes use of period lenses from the 1800s for an aesthetic that is altogether authentic and transformative. Nerve spoke to Ross about his technique, the importance of fun in photography, and why 19th century photography is better than Instagram filters. Ed Ross and his extraordinary work will be featured in the upcoming issue of BellSf magazine.
Tintypes are incredible. For the uninitiated, what’s a tintype and how’s one made?
Tintype is a photographic process popular in the 1860s and 1870s, particularly in America. It is a form of “wet plate” or “collodion” photography. To make a plate, you start with a piece of blackened metal, pour collodion (comprised of gun cotton, ether, alcohol, and salts) onto the plate, wait until the alcohol and ether have almost entirely evaporated, dunk the plate into a solution of silver water, expose the plate in-camera, develop with ferrous sulfate, fix the image with potassium cyanide or hypo, and then varnish the plate once dried. I can expose a plate about once every 15 minutes — so four photographs an hour. Each shoot I usually get 10-12 images.
Wow. Your photography takes me back to an old carnival and caravan era. Is that the magic of tintypes and what draws you to the eerie and often permanent quality of the medium?
I like the mercurial and fickle aspects of both the process and the resulting images — each image is unique, and without useable light meters, very difficult to replicate even if you wanted to do so. Also, I use period brass barrel lenses of a petzval design, which have an extremely short depth of focus, as well as a curved-field of focus, meaning they are very sharp in the center and fall off gradually (exactly the opposite of what lens designers have been striving for the past hundred and fifty years — a flat sharp field, corner to corner). I think the lens optics compliment the process beautifully.
But I agree with you — the plates and images have a timeless quality that is in itself very appealing to me — with their peculiarities, they go against the current of perfection in photography that has been on the rise since Ansel Adams and his Group f/64 — back to an era of painterly qualities in photography.
Explain your favorite model-photographer shoot. What makes for a good subject?
It is very difficult to pick a favorite shoot. I will say that I think my favorite model has been Nicole Winge, who is now an accomplished photographer in NYC. She was so enthusiastic and collaborative, not to mention gorgeous — we had many very productive and enjoyable shoots together.
Photography for me is a passion in process as well as in result, so my best subjects are usually ones that share a similar aesthetic as well as enjoyment of just taking the pictures. I place having fun as high as making something beautiful, or almost as high!
Do you think modern photography has lost its way at all, now that we’re in a “let’s Instagram everything,” era?
My bias is against computer-generated art, which is really what a digital photograph is. Whether that is because I lack an aptitude for computers and programs or because I prefer manual skills is an open question — probably some of each. But I think there are loads of very creative people out there pushing computer-generated art in directions that are totally beyond me, and I respect them for doing so — just isn’t for me. I think the cultural phenomenon of posting “selfies,” “see my meal,” and “where I am now” is a different issue, more of a sociological discussion than an aesthetic one. So, I don’t think photography has lost its way, but the currents in social networking is a different story.
So the currents in social networking are something you’re more wary of? So much of your photography seems about human connection — is that what you’re concerned about losing?
I think there is a trend away from calling people on the telephone, from meeting for coffee or a beer, or from taking a walk together, and I think there is a rising trend of people posting virtually meaningless status updates to the social network at large. I think the former is conducive to creating solid social bonds, and I think the latter, while not destructive, doesn’t form any bonds. So, I see a correlation between the two trends, though not necessarily a causation. And, yes, the correlation is mildly worrisome to me. But I can’t do anything about it other than to ask more people out for coffee!
What do you hope to achieve or say by reviving the tintype?
I don’t have a goal for my photography outside of creating something beautiful — and I don’t mean pretty. I subscribe to the bohemian credo, art for art’s sake.
The following images may be considered NSFW.
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