Robert Benson grew up in Minnesota before spending time in the Navy as a photojournalist. He subsequently lived in Japan and studied photojournalism at Syracuse University. He now works as a freelancer in San Diego.
Can you walk us through the process for making Tintype images?
‘It’s a convoluted, long, messy, dangerous process that is so complex that I have to often refer to a 40 page instruction book, especially when mixing the chemicals. I do tintypes the same way, using the same chemicals, as was done in the late 1800s. I begin with a metal plate that is black on one side (this is the side that will have the emulsion).
‘After setting up my camera for a picture with subject in place, I go into a darkroom (on location I use the darkened interior of the back of a Uhaul van), I coat the plate with a collodion solution. After about 30 seconds, when it becomes semi dry, the same plate goes into a solution of silver nitrate for about three minutes. This sensitizes the plate to light. The wet plate is then put into a wet plate holder that is lightproof. This wet plate holder then goes back on the camera, where the exposure is made. The plate has to then be immediately developed and then fixed (all this while it is wet). As a result, shooting on location is a logistical challenge. I mentioned the need to refer to the instruction book. The collodion I mix, for example, follows a recipie that is difficult to rememeber:
plain collodion, 120ml
Ethel Ether, 100ml
190 proof alcohol
potassium iodide 2 grams
cadmium bromide, 1 gram
ammonium bromide, .5 grams
distilled water, 4 ml
I use potassium cyanide for the fixer. It’s difficult getting this kind of a thing. They don’t sell it at Target’.
How did you first get into this technique and what do you like best about the end result?
‘I was mesmerized by the haunting quality of the tintypes made by photographer, Robb Kendrick. I contacted him, asked where he learned the craft, and he pointed me to an LA area guy named Will Dunniway. He taught me everything. The result? There is a haunting quality about the images on tintype, which come I think because of the sitter remaining motionless and staring into the camera during the long exposure, which can run five seconds or more’.
What types of subjects look best with this treatment?
Gritty, old, weathered, stoic, people. The process isn’t kind to beauty. It ages them and enhances wrinkles and skin defects. The result is a very old looking, very hard looking image. That’s one thing I really like about tintypes’.
What kind of stories are you usually commissioned to photograph using this method and how do you generally deliver the final product?
‘I shot arrowheads (called “points”) in Alaska along with the guy who hunts for them for a story I did for Outside Magazine. I shot a marathon runner for a magazine in Boston, because they wanted something “different”. And I recently shot some golfers at Torrey Pines for a Golf Magazine. It was a group of golfers, old men, who for the past twenty years have been camping out in their cars in the parking lot at the golf course so they can get the best tee times on Sunday. The editors wanted images that conveyed old, or solid, or not budging or determined, just like the group of men’.