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Everything New Is Old Again: Creating Vintage Tintypes from Modern Photos

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Bonny Pierce Lhotka, author of Digital Alchemy: Printmaking Techniques for Fine Art, Photography, and Mixed Media, has cooked up “greener” methods for creating the look of tintypes from the late 1800s. No harsh chemicals or fancy equipment needed; just some household products, a little time, and an artistic eye.
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Photographers and artists are always looking for new and interesting ways to design their art, and in particular to create unique, one-of-a-kind works, where the process takes place as much in the lab as behind the lens. One such unique effect is the look of old photographic tintypes from the turn of the 19th century. I remember looking through tintypes with my parents, captured by the history they represented as well as the iconic appearance of those images.

Recently I launched into a research project to bring contemporary digital methods back to the 1890s, replicating the classic imagery of the tintype, while adding another creative tool to the arsenal of the alternative photographer and artist.

Accident Becomes Advantage

I had started washing aluminum foil in my dishwasher to create aluminum leaf for use in my custom collage substrates, as I talk about in my book Digital Alchemy: Printmaking Techniques for Fine Art, Photography, and Mixed Media. The processes involve either assembling a collage or using a flat sheet of mill-finished aluminum and coating it with a paintable inkjet precoat. The substrate can then be imaged directly with inkjet printers, giving artists access to metal prints at a fraction of the cost of printing services.

After writing Digital Alchemy, I started noticing that when I washed aluminum pots in my dishwasher they would turn strange colors. I discovered that the reformulating of modern dishwashing detergents to remove phosphates had caused a chemical change that resulted in this interesting discoloration. My aluminum pots turned black, and my pie tins and cookie sheets became rainbow brown (see Figure 1), looking very much like those old photographic tintypes. It didn't take long to make that mental connection and turn my ruined cookware into a golden opportunity.

Figure 1 A discolored aluminum tray.

I decided to try to get those same variegated stains on rigid aluminum sheets (also called "plates"), but getting predictable results took a lot of experimentation. Ultimately I learned to use 0.025-inch mill-finished aluminum sheets—not roofing material.

After much additional testing, I discovered that heat was crucial to achieving the color I wanted (see Figure 2). Most modern energy-efficient dishwashers don't get hot enough to trigger the change, but older models do, as well as some of the newer machines that have a very hot sanitizing setting.

Figure 2 You can get quite a variety of patterns with this technique. Colors range from rainbow gold, brown, tan, gray, and mauve all the way to black.

Because a dishwasher isn't likely to be available in everyone's photo studio, and most dishwashers don't get the water hot enough to guarantee the right effect, I tried various other methods of heating the aluminum sheets and water. I was looking for a way to ensure that the water was sufficiently hot to simulate the magic that happened in my dishwasher. I also needed a method that could maintain this high temperature in order to guarantee consistent results. I found the answer when I hit on the idea of using an 18-quart electric roaster oven.

In addition to creating abstract all-over patterns, I wanted to be able to design specific backgrounds. I also needed to find a way to leave some areas of the plates unmarked so I could insert photos within the patterns, creating the look of those old-fashioned tintypes. My goal was to replicate the look of vintage photography without having to use photographic chemicals. Following is an overview of the method I eventually developed to address all these requirements.

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