Exploring Portraits in American History | Teachers College Columbia University

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Exploring Portraits in American History

Macy Gallery stirs a sense of memory and psychological tension in its newest exhibition featuring more than 200 tintype portraits and offering a historical journey through 1860 and 1910 in American photography. Join Macy Gallery with food and friends at the opening reception on Friday, April 11, 5-8 p.m.

TINTYPES, 1860 - 1910: Portraits in the American History of Photography

Curated by Maurizio Pellegrin

Join Macy Gallery with food and friends at the opening reception on Friday, April 11, 5-8 p.m.

Made possible through the generous support of the Florence H. And Eugene E. Myers Charitable Remainders Unitrust and featuring more than 200 tintypes, this incredible artwork is on view at the Macy Art Gallery from April 7th through April 18th, 11:00-6:00 p.m., Monday through Saturday

A catalogue is available.

The Exhibition

This exhibition of Tintype portraits offers a small journey into American History, in the years between 1870 and 1910. Behind the fascination of the technique and the materials, appears a sociological investigation of human features, of clothes, and of the curious sets built by the photographers within which to place them. A sense of memory and psychological tension appears to drive these generations of families, men, women, children, as they are represented in direct exposure to the viewer: open to a quick glance but often distant and untouchable. A sense of suspended time surrounds the subjects, forming a sort of abstract area where we can know nothing about the work, the passions, or the sentiments of the persons depicted. The de-contextualisation from real daily life projects these portraits into an aura of subtle absence. It is also, perhaps, from the standpoint of this absence that we are able to perceive our own contemporary presence and vitality.

Historical Notes

The partnership on December 4th 1829 between Louis Jacques Mande' Daguerre and Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce produced the first photographic process that was later called Daguerrotype.  After the process had been improved it was presented to the Academy of Science in France in 1839. This photographic process used a coat of silver sensitized with fumes of iodine on a copper surface. After the plate was exposed by the camera, it was developed with fumes of heated mercury. A glass was used on top of the plate to protect the surface. A frame of decorative brass was also placed on top of the glass and sealed to avoid any oxidants, and preventing leakages of air. Finally, the sealed package consisting of the plate, glass and brass frame was placed in a leather case, usually padded with fabric or velvet for protection and for handling. This elaborate process required a long exposure time more suited to still subjects or landscapes.

According to Beaumont Newhall (1964) Daguerreotypes were very popular from 1839 to 1860, but by the end of 1840 three substantial technical advances had been made:

  1. An improved lens constructed in Vienna by Voigtländer which formed an image that was sixteen times more brilliant.
  2. The improvement  of the light sensitivity of the plate.
  3. Tones softened by the process of gilding the plate.

By the end of 1840 the English scientist William Henry Fox Talbot had modified this process creating the  Calotype, which was able to sustain a shorter exposure time on paper prepared in a bath of silver nitrate and then in potassium iodide.

In 1851 Frederick Scott Archer introduced the Collodion process, enabling the creation of a negative and a positive plate which required the use of glass instead of paper to form the negative. In America this process was patented by James Ambrose Cutting of Boston and became known as the Ambrotype.

A modification of the Ambrotype led to the creation of the Tintype by its inventor Hannibal L. Smith who subsequently gave the patent to Peter Neff in 1856. Peter Neff Jr., named this new invention Melainotype; however, M. Griswold later used the term Ferrotype to characterise the entire process of creating the Tintype. Now, the photographic image was printed on a thin sheet of iron coated in black or brown chemicals.

The Tintype eventually became a common photographic process and was very popular from 1856 until the early 1900's. Tintypes were cheap and easy to make: the materials were inexpensive and the plate could be cut later by the photographer with scissors. It was also possible to use a single plate in a camera with 12 or 16 lenses. Tintypes were also easy and fast to produce, and customers could have their photographs immediately after the photographer had covered them with a thin coat of varnish in order to protect the image.

Smaller Tintypes were about the size of a postage stamp, and called Gem Tintypes (1/2" x 1"); these were generally used for insertion into family albums. Gems were used also for jewelry such as pins, broaches, lockets and Victorian hair jewelry. Sometimes tintypes were cased like the older daguerreotypes. The common sizes of tintypes were: Full plate (6 1/2" x 8 1/2"), Half plate (4 1/2" x 51/2"), 1/4 plate (3 1/8" x 4 1/8"), 1/6 plate (2 1/4" x 3 1/2"), 1/9 plate (2" x 2 1/2"),

"Revenue stamps" were usually placed on the back of tintypes and the Cartes de visite produced during the Civil War were used to finance  the war effort (The Wartime Retail Tax Act, Sept 1864-66).

Maurizio Pellegrin
New York, February 28th 2008

Ref. Beaumont Newhall (1964). The History of Photography. NY: The Museum of Modern Art.


Published Friday, Apr. 11, 2008