Interview: Henrietta's Eye

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Henrietta's Eye is the wet plate collodion tintype photography of Seattle-based couple Libby Bulloff and Stephen Robinson.

Libby and Stephen are also our next-door studio neighbors at 57 Biscayne! We recently had our tintype photographs taken, and it was amazing. If only cameras could talk... but this Q&A with Libby & Stephen is the next best thing!

Q: How did you get into tintype photography?
Libby first saw wet plate photography demonstrated a couple of years ago by local ambrotypist Dan Carrillo, and immediately fell in love with the visceral nature of capturing an image in chemicals on a piece of metal or glass.

Ever since being captivated by the work of Mathew Brady, Alfred Stieglitz and Walker Evans, Stephen has been fascinated with old photographic processes and the craftsmanship involved. He loves both the surreal nature and the stark honesty conveyed by large format photography.

Last year, in one of those seemingly small events that ends up deeply life-affecting, our friend Magpie Killjoy, a traveling photographer, designer, and writer, came to Seattle and taught both of us how to make tintypes using his antique camera in exchange for studio time. We were both so immediately taken with the process, and more so with the results, we threw ourselves headlong into learning more. We then spent the next two months tracking down and repairing our 1908 Seneca Black Beauty 4x5 camera, named Henrietta, building a portable darkroom in a foot locker, researching techniques and materials, and taking lots and lots of photos. We constantly experiment and try to perfect a complicated process we full-well know cannot be perfected. We especially love using old gear, from the camera to lenses, to lighting.

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Q: What is attractive to you about the method?
We are both attracted by the hand-crafted nature of this process. From start to finish, your hands touch everything. It is very intimate. Each photo is unique. Even if you shoot the same model on the same day, with same lighting and the same exposure time, each plate is different. They’re like tiny chemical paintings in this respect, each with their own beauty, nuances and imperfections. While on the surface it may seem frustrating to not be able to duplicate a photograph, we find it exhilarating and inspiring. Another aspect of creating tintypes we find attractive is that no computers or electronic devices (aside from the lights) are involved. There’s an element of magic and alchemy to the process and the resulting photograph that cannot be duplicated by modern digital photography. We create heirlooms and lasting, honest-to-goodness artifacts. Tintypes from the Civil War era are still around (and valued by collectors) so we know they will last at least 150 years. Ultimately, for us, creating tintypes is art. There’s both an art to the process, and the process allows us to create beautiful art.

Q: In your words, how does the process work?
The basic method of making a tintype can be distilled down to a couple of key steps. We use a process that is very authentic to the one popularized in the mid-1800s. First, we take a piece of enameled aluminum and coat it in chemicals that allow it to become light sensitive. Then, we carefully load it into the camera and expose it, creating a negative image directly on the metal plate. After that, we develop and stop it under a safe light in our portable dark room, and then fix it in a tray, often right before our subject’s eyes. It’s very similar to watching a Polaroid develop. We finally seal the tintype with a traditional sanderac and lavender varnish that not only protects the photo from the elements, it also smells great.

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Sitting for a tintype portrait can be quite a dramatic and unique experience. Our subjects tend to have stoic expressions on their faces, like the Victorians, because the exposure time on the portrait runs 20-45 seconds, and it is difficult to try to hold anything except a neutral expression for that long.

Q: How can folks get ahold of you to schedule a portrait session?
The best way to get ahold of us is via email at henriettas.eye@gmail.com. We’re happy to answer questions, take on special projects, and set up private photoshoots for folks who’d like to get a portrait taken. You can see some of our images at http://www.seattletintype.com.

Q: What do you like best about having a studio at 57 Biscayne?
We love being so centrally located to the heart of the Seattle historical district. It really lends itself well to the oldee-timeyness of our creative process to be surrounded by bricks and mortar that are over a hundred years old. It’s also wonderful to see other passionate artists working on their respective projects when we come in to do a shoot.

Q: What's your favorite place to eat in Seattle (and why)?
Gastropod. It is an unassuming place in SODO with a tiny kitchen, run by two unpretentious blokes who marry unconventional flavors in their cuisine and handmade beer. It’s Northwest food in the best sense. We love to spend evenings there, after we’ve worked hard in the studio, chatting with the chef and brewer about food, music, and politics, and gorging ourselves on succulent Hama Hama oysters.

Q: What's your favorite place to shop in Seattle (and why)?
We don’t have a favorite place, per se, but we love digging through antique malls, junk shops, and finding the odd treasure on Craigslist. We collect taxidermy, old medical and dental paraphernalia, Victoriana, vintage shoes, and old things built to last.

To see Henrietta in action, come see her in December!
57 BISCAYNE HOLIDAY SALE
Where? 57 Biscayne, 110 Cherry St., 2nd Floor, Seattle
When? Thursday, December 5th from 6:00 – 9:00 pm AND Saturday, December 7th from 12:00 – 5:00 pm