When did you get interested in tintype photography?
I would say it was about four, maybe five, years ago. One of the lovely things about working in a university [Rob is Senior Lecturer in Photography at Canterbury Christ Church University] is that you get time and funds to practice. I was given a small grant to experiment with an alternative process. The wet plate was physical and very interesting to me. I liked the instantaneous nature of it - almost like a precursor to the polaroid.
We [the university] have a gallery, The Old Lookout, in Broadstairs Harbour. It’s literally an old shed and I spent a week there experimenting with the process. We don’t have heaters but there’s running water and electricity so it’s easy to work there and it’s so rough you can throw chemicals around and it doesn’t matter. I got slightly intoxicated by it and just kept doing it.
What were your first tintype pictures of?
I used it quite early on to do portraits. It does something interesting with skin tones because it’s UV-sensitive. People quite often don’t look like themselves so I was interested in how it transformed your subject. I was doing a lot of self-portraiture for pragmatic reasons. And because I was down by the sea I was doing a lot of seascapes.
Was this the continuation of an interest in alternative photography processes?
I’ve always worked with large-format, analogue 5x4 and 10x8 cameras so the picture-taking process wasn’t so different - it was more the pre and postproduction. I’m old enough to have been brought up on film so while a lot of it was new, it didn’t feel uncomfortable, it made sense, the process is similar to the normal darkroom process.
How does the tintype process work? What do you need?
The plates are made when they’re wet so everything needs to be done within a 10-15 minute period, which means you need a darkroom nearby. You use a sheet of aluminium or glass, coat it with collodion, put it in silver to make it light sensitive and then put it in a camera and take a picture. Then you go into the darkroom to develop it and can bring it out into daylight to fix it. You can mix the chemicals yourself. There are kits available online with all the things you need
premixed or you can buy the compounds from chemicals suppliers. The beauty is you’re not reliant on someone like Kodak - who might put the prices up or go bust. Because the chemicals are all used for other things, even if film photography stopped tomorrow you’d probably still be able to get all the chemicals and find a way to work with the process.
Fixing a Plate in Dreamland from Obsolete Studios on Vimeo.
What do you love about it?
I’m very interested in the physicality of photography. I like the fact that I feel like I’ve taken a photograph when I’ve taken a photograph. It’s very slow photography - because of all these steps you have to go through it can take 10, 20, 30 minutes to make a picture so I don’t produce a vast output. I like the smell of the chemicals. I like that each image is different - you can never repeat yourself, even if you put the camera in the same place the chemicals will react differently. Every picture will be distinct.
And what are the challenges?
You need a lot of kit. For the Dreamland project, every time I went, I’d have to build a darkroom so the first hour of the day was devoted to that. It can be expensive and frustrating because the chemicals don’t always work. Things like the humidity, temperature and light affect it. Light meters don’t work because it’s mainly UV-sensitive so you can’t measure the light - you have to guess. It’s unpredictable. As I said, you have to have a darkroom within 10 minutes so everything has to be done straight away.
There are others experimenting with early processes - The London Alternative Photography Collective, for example. Do you think this trend is a reaction to digital?
Any analogue process is talked about in relation to digital and I’m not sure it’s such a big deal. It’s just different. The technical information is easier to get because of YouTube and people sharing knowledge. So I think to find out how to do it isn’t as difficult as it used to be. Because of that you get a critical mass of people who see more of it and then get excited about it.
Rob Ball: Dreamlands runs from 16 June to 2 August 2015 at The Photographers’ Gallery Print Sales Gallery. To accompany the exhibition, Rob will be holding a tintype portrait day in a teepee outside the gallery from 10am-5pm on 4 July.
Dreamlands, a book of the project, is published by Dewi Lewis.
All images © Rob Ball