Review: America and the Tintype by Steven Kasher


Book Reviews

There is a lot of talk about digital photography making photography more democratic. However, if you’re really interested in a moment when photography became more democratic (and not just more convenient) you have to go back to just after the middle of the 19th Century, when the tintype process was invented. A cheap alternative to the daguerreotype and the albumen print, tintypes made photography very affordable and accessible, as a consequence of which especially in the United States photography literally entered the homes of huge numbers of people. As Steven Kasher writes in America and the Tintype, getting your own photograph taken cost you no more than what we pay today for a movie ticket (plus a small popcorn). And not only that - tintypes were/are images on a thin sheet of metal (not tin actually) and as such they were/are very durable.

In America and the Tintype, Kasher argues that tintypes were used for much more than “just” standard portraits, and he discusses a wide variety of uses, with a large number of sample images. Those unfamiliar with tintypes will probably a bit surprised about what they look like, especially since many of them are shown enlarged in the book. Tintypes usually have a brownish colour (with hints of grey and blue), and they typically are imperfect: partly (if not fully) out of focus, unevenly exposed (or outright dark), as well as dented and/or scratched. Part of their charm lies in this randomness - and since tintypes are unique images, they are somewhat comparable to what one could call their 20th Century cousins, Polaroid images.

Because of their nature, tintypes are prime examples of vernacular photography, so anybody interested in this type of photography might want to check out America and the Tintype. I’m often under the impression that many people appreciate vernacular photography mostly because of the “weirder” images (people wearing clothes that are completely out of style now etc.). With its focus, America and the Tintype for the most part also falls into this category. Since its author is interested in the tintype studio as “a kind of performance space where sitters could act out their personal identities” this is easily understandable. However, it does diminish the simple and endearing beauty of many of the less spectacular tintypes.

Given the fact that tintypes are not very often seen, America and the Tintype is definitely destined to become the landmark book in this area. One can hope that an increased appreciation of this form of photography will result in a larger interest in what one could truly call the first democratic form of photography.