PHOTO CREDIT:© Antonio Martinez
“Of Battle and Ballet” combines a scanned tintype and a scanned negative to make a hybrid image that maintains detail from the negative and imperfections from the tintype.

E-Projects: Tintypes In Motion


SEPTEMBER 02, 2010

By Holly Stuart Hughes

Set to an eerie and mournful soundtrack, the video "Near the Egress" shows images of a circus not as a colorful spectacle but as a mysterious, sometimes sinister series of scenes: herky-jerky black-and-white images of lumbering elephants commanded by a trainer, an acrobat and a magician flicker and fade, sometimes obscured by blotches and spots.

Photographer Antonio Martinez created the stop-motion video as an experiment in fusing old and new, analogue and digital photographic techniques. He used Photoshop and Final Cut Pro editing software to blend his tintype images, created with a dry-plate technique developed in the 19th century. Both the video and the tintype images that make up the sequence have been exhibited at Los Manos Gallery in Chicago and were recently on view at Blue Sky Gallery in Portland, Oregon.

Martinez began creating tintypes while he was in graduate school at the East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, after he attended a workshop in vintage processes with photographer and printer Scott McMahon. "There was something just magical and alluring about the modern tintype process when presented by Scott," he recalls. Rather than using the classic wet-plate collodion process, McMahon suggested a dry-plate technique. "The dry-plate process involves coating anodized aluminum with a silver gelatin emulsion, which is then air-dried," Martinez says. Using this method, he can prepare batches of sheets—as many as 300 at a time—by coating them with silver emulsion. "When they're dry in the morning, I can use them anytime."

With a traditional wet-plate process, he says, "I would have to coat, expose and process in a short, limited amount of time. The dry-plate process could be used with any positive image, whether it was from a silver print, enlarged digital positive, or even a color slide enlarged to the size of the metal." Martinez, who shoots 35mm Tri-X, enlarges his negatives to 4 x 5 to create a transparent positive, then contact-prints the positives on the sensitized aluminum plates and develops them using a developer he purchases online. "For a grad student on a budget and working primarily with the 35mm camera format, the modern tintype process was the answer in making a unique photographic art object."

He enjoys what he calls "the finicky process" of printing tintypes, but what first sparked his interest was when he heard that tintypes were once considered "the poor man's daguerreotype." Martinez, who was raised in Oklahoma, says he strives to make images "that celebrate the middle-class condition." He attended and photographed his first circus in 2006, attracted by "a collectively shared activity and experience that the community valued." Since then he has photographed many other arena spectacles conducted in small towns: body-building competitions, rodeos, bull riding contests and, most recently, amateur cage-fights. By printing these images as tintypes, Martinez gives the images both a mysterious allure and a timeless quality.

Honing his tintype technique has required trial and error. "I experimented with different developer recipes, emulsion brands, sources of positives and substrate surfaces and sizes," he says. He now orders ready-made developer online through Rockloid Colloid Corporation, located in Piermont, New York, and uses Kodafixer to fix the emulsions. Martinez also varnishes his tintypes, which he says deepens the blacks and brightens highlights.

 After graduate school, Martinez got a job teaching at the Cinema and Photography department at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, where he became interested in the abstract, experimental films of the Seventies by Stan Brakhage and others, and started thinking about how to set his tintypes into motion. He decided to scan the images of the elephant dance he'd photographed at the circus into Photoshop, and then used the editing software Final Cut Pro to turn them into a stop motion sequence.

His first effort, output as a Quicktime movie, was only 17 seconds long, but he liked the results, and decided to scan and sequence more of the circus images. Because the Canon Elan 7E he had used captured only 4 frames per second, the sequences looked too choppy. To solve that, he used Photoshop to create transitional frames. For example, he would open frames 1 through 3. "Each of these tintype scans would populate a separate layer in a single PS file. Next, I would choose which areas and layers I needed to mask in order to create 'frame1a,' 'frame1b" 'frame2a,' and so on," using Photoshop to slightly move an arm or a leg so it was closer to where it was positioned in the next frame in the sequence.

Says Martinez, "It was an endless process, but I felt I had more control than letting an automated software program do it [all] for me."

Finally, he set the video to a score composed by Ramah Jihan, a former student of Martinez's who lives in Chicago, and mixed in sounds he recorded himself of children's laughter and an animal tamer's whip. He named the finished video "Near the Egress." Martinez explains, "'This Way to the Egress'" was a sign used by P.T. Barnum to control the foot traffic at his circus events, because many did not know that Egress means Exit," so they followed the signs, expecting to see an exotic bird.

Martinez continues to experiment with blending tintypes and digital techniques, sometimes scanning both the tintype and the negative, and creating a montage of the two. With his cage fighting photos, he wants to create "a full-color tintype digital hybrid." He's also been scanning the cagefighting images in preparation for making another stop-motion video, this time experimenting with Polaroid lifts, a technique in which emulsions are floated off the paper, turning them into gossamer sheets. Says Martinez, "That should be a wild one!"

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