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06.22.2024: Tintype Demo @ Erie Canal Museum

Updated: Jun 26

Have you ever wanted to have your portrait taken by a professional? Or maybe you've wanted to see what pre-civil war life was like, even for just a fleeting moment? Any interest in learning about one of the oldest photographic techniques? Had you been at the Erie Canal Museum this past Saturday you could have scratched any of those itches, when artist-in-residence Judit German-Heins presented a demonstration on the tin-type photographic process. The cost was only $10. To get your portrait taken required registering in advance and signing up for a time slot. I was able to get the first slot, which was at 10am there for the first time slot. I arrived slightly early and was surprised to find my companion and I were in good company, as several other people were also waiting for the museum to open.

Ms. German-Heins introducing the tintype process.

The demonstration was held on the second story of the museum. We essentially got to witness the entire process, start to finish. Ms. German-Heins was an engaging presenter, and explained what she was doing while still efficiently performing each step. She had subtle and wry sense of humor and was very approachable and welcoming of questions. The demonstration began with the preparation of the metallic slide that was to become the tintype image. The slides had been pre-prepared with a black coating on one side. She then proceeded to apply the collodion coating that would make it into a light sensitive photographic plate. Once that was ready the model was seated in front of a large format view camera and an intimidating lighting setup that was pre-prepared for the purpose, complete with three power supplies, each about the size of two cinder blocks.

Ready for his closeup.

The tintype process is extremely slow compared to "modern" film. Films sensitivity is rated on an ISO scale, with the most common being between 200 and 800. If you've taken a film photography class you probably used a film like Kodak Tri X which has a sensitivity of 400, and your smart phone is probably capable of well over 2000 especially with the software trickery of modern night modes. Ms. German-Heins shared that the tin type process, the sensitivity is less than 1. This is where the massive power supplies came into play, which would unleash a pulse of light equivalent to a 7500 watt light bulb. Let me tell you: when that goes off you feel the heat and literally see stars!

The image revealed!

After doing some dark magic (pun intended) in her darkroom tent, the moment was upon us and the image was revealed! Fun fact, while the images look normal (or in photographic terms, a positive image) they actually are not; they are actually a very underexposed negative with the black paint on the slide as a dark "backlight." We weren't allowed to take our images home that day, as they need to be sealed with varnish to stabilize the image but will be sent them once they're ready.

This event was just one of steady stream that the Erie Canal Museum puts on. They are generally low cost and mix fun and history in easily accessible packages. Still on the docket for the summer is their series of Beers, Bikes, and Barges rides and walking tours. The rides have you riding bikes along the canal, learning about the history of the canal and its effects on the state, and finish with beers at a local brewery. Each of the walks have a distinct theme, ranging from the architecture of the city to the experiences of African Americans in the era when the canal was king. All are affordable and a great way to learn more about where we live. You can find out more about these and other programs here:

More from the Tintype demo:

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