Thursday, June 30, 2011
Aside from taking pictures of dogs, I love restoring old photographs. A couple of weeks ago, a client brought this tintype to my studio and asked if I could restore it.
Upon examining it through a magnifying glass, I concluded that it would restore nicely. She smiled and commented, "I believe this is my great-great-grandmother. The woman's eyes look just like mine." The resemblance is indeed striking.
"Tintype" is a misnomer as tintypes were typically iron sheets that were coated with black paint or baked enamel that were then brushed over with a light-sensitive emulsion. The tintype process came about in the mid 1850s. During the Civil War, itinerant professional photographers visited encampments and took pictures of the troops. The soldiers sent these pictures home to their loved ones. The advantages of tintypes over other photographic processes (daguerreotypes and ambrotypes) of that era are that they were inexpensive to produce and the plates were relatively easy to process. In a sense, tintypes democratized photography. The process remained popular until the advent of celluloid roll film and the Kodak camera.
Because tintypes were once common, they often show up today at curio shops, flea markets, and on occasion, auctions. Here is an item from the Associated Press (AP) announcing an auction for a tintype of Billy the Kid. The picture sold for $2,300,000!
The process of restoring a photograph from the 1870s requires good tools, good Photoshop skills, and the right equipment. The first step involves making a digital copy from the original. Most mom-and-pop shops and amateurs use scanners. For tintypes, I avoid scanners. But for the sake of demonstrating their shortcomings, I made a scan of this tintype with a current mid-priced prosumer model. By adjusting the input and output curves, the scanner produced a satisfactory image. It shows that the photographer embellished the sitter's cheeks with rose pigment. Photographers of that era often embellished photographs with dyes and pigments — color photography did not exist.
However, the scan appears muddy. Although a healthy dose of Photoshop adjustment layer curves will help, there is still a lot of visual information that is lost. The LED in the scanner that illuminates artwork emits diffused ("soft") light. Upon close examination of the surface on the actual tintype, a myriad of cracks, scratches, and fine detail appear. Diffusion tends to minimize scratches and cracks at the expense of eliminating micro detail. Diffused light also has the tendency to flatten out the overall tonal range of an original that may not be visible to the naked eye.
My standard operating procedure is to use an ultra-high resolution camera combined with a top-of-the-line macro lens to photograph tintypes. I use strobe lights to illuminate the artwork. Strobes produce "hard" light, much like the sun on a clear day. In addition to the strobes, I place a polarizer over the camera lens and polarizer gels over the strobe lights. This eliminates all reflections and enables the camera to pick up a greater tonal range along with more detail.
The difference between the scanned image and the one above taken with the camera/strobe combination is obvious.
One advantage of using a scanner to digitize a tintype is that it will smooth out surface imperfections and micro details thus reducing the amount of time it takes the retouch artist to produce a clean, albeit low fidelity, image — somewhat analogous to hearing a Beethoven symphony on AM radio.
After photographing the tintype of my client's great-great-grandmother, I removed all of the color data.
From here, I began the laborious process of restoration, which involved a prodigious amount of retouching. The process took about four hours. The client requested that I eliminate the hackneyed rose color from the cheeks and chin that the photographer had applied to the original.
I printed the restored image on 100% cotton paper. The print should last for a couple hundred years if it is stored in an acid-free and climate controlled environment. If it is matted and framed properly behind UV blocking glass and displayed out of direct sunlight, it will last for generations.
The woman is wearing a ring on what appears to be her right-hand ring finger, but the tintype process renders a direct-positive image. This picture is what you would see if you looked at the scene through a mirror. The ring is really on her left hand; it is a wedding band. We had not noticed the ring in the original tintype. The restoration uncovered it — a puzzle piece that helped my client pinpoint the year her ancestor posed in front of the camera.
If you are interested in reading more about tintypes, please click on these links: http://topdogimaging.net/blog/resuscitating-a-post-civil-war-tintype and http://topdogimaging.net/blog/photo-restoration-guesswork.