Posts tagged history
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

Platen Press Operation
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We were lucky enough to purchase an amazing resource from the Stern & Faye collection when we were at Wayzgoose a couple months ago. It's been crazy around here this summer, (as you know) so we haven't had a chance to photograph and blog it - but today's the day!

This is the 1953 edition of the informational and inspirational book: Platen Press Operation by George J. Mills.

In '53, Mills was the Assistant Professor in the School of Printing Management, Carnegie Institute of Technology. Think about that for a moment. In 1953, lots of people (and by people, I mean men) went to school and majored in letterpress printing. This blows my mind a bit. It really wasn't that long ago that letterpress was the accepted and common method of printing. It wasn't a quirky thing that graphic designers like... it was a common college major, and an even more commonly, a blue collar profession. However, I'm really okay with not being born in the 40's or 50's - because (as I realized when reading) I wouldn't have had the choice to be a printer. The book refers only to printers as being male. I suppose I often forget how different a woman's life was then. So, although I would love to be able to go to printer school - i'm happy here in the now, being a woman AND a printer.

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I obviously can't blog the entire text of the book (it's a whole lot of information) - but I will be sharing photos and excerpts here on the blog. I geeked out when we bought this book - things I learned only by hearing and doing are here in this book to be learned by reading and studying. It's not all universally interesting knowledge (a lot of it is super specific, which is super exciting to me, but i'm a nerd), but there's a lot to learn in there, and a lot to share. Hopefully reading it here will be helpful and informational for you, the reader.

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Excerpts from the Foreword:
This book has been written with two aims in mind: to direct the beginning student in his learning about platen presswork; and to assist the advanced student or journeyman press operator to improve the efficiency of his techniques and the quality of the jobs which he prints.

The task of beginning properly is important in any technical field; printing is no exception. The knowledge of basic elements that is gained by the printing student or apprentice not only affects the ultimate success of his learning, it also often determines his choice of an occupation within the industry.

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No one becomes a skilled pressman by reading a textbook about presses. Skill in presswork is developed by carefully supervised operation of a press along with a thorough study of the materials and equipment that a pressman uses. Until he has learned the basic techniques the beginner should work with simple jobs. As his skill increases, he may progress to more complex ones. Successful teachers generally make use of a series of jobs designed so that the student progresses from simple to complex work in an orderly manner, and in the process experiences each kind of job encountered in the average pressroom.

The good pressman remains a student and observer all of his life. The things which he learns he adapts to solve specific problems and to improve the methods being used in his particular situation. Improvements in materials and machines are being made continually; these merit investigation in order that the competitive position of the platen press be maintained or improved against the inroads of other machines and processes.

New Studio Location
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Constellation & Co. has officially found a new home! We will soon be moving with several other 619 Building artists to another historic building in Pioneer Square.

Our new studio will be located on the 2nd floor of 110 Cherry Street, on the corner of 1st and Cherry. The new floor of studio spaces will be named "57 Biscayne," a clever and timely nod to a line of Joni Mitchell song lyrics. 57 Biscayne also has available studio spaces, if you're looking. Join us!

[Photo from an article on the Seattle Daily Journal of Commerence]

110 Cherry is an ornate brick building, built in the wave of new construction after the 1889 Seattle fire. I'm having trouble finding historical information on the building - but be assured, we'll hunt it down! We're looking forward to bringing our presses to their new home, and creating lots of fun historic prints together. (We're also looking forward to lots of DIY interior decorating projects, which you can look forward to seeing here on the blog.)