“Anyone may have diamonds: an heirloom is an ornament of quite a different kind.” – Elizabeth Aston
We all love the idea of getting our grandparents heirlooms. They’re pieces of quality and love that we want to treasure and keep on display for all who enter our lives to see. We want to be able to tell the stories that are behind the piece – whatever it might be – to share those memories with those closet to us. But with all the fast-fashion and quick-trends that surround us today, have we stopped to think about what heirlooms we can create?
Michael N Foster is a wetplate photographer that is in the business of creating heirlooms. His photography style, that dates back to 1848, is a style that can create a memory that last over 160 years. It’s a unique and classic way to capture a moment that can last a lifetime – and more.
First, could you explain what tintype/wetplate photography is and a little bit of the process behind it?
The wetplate collodion process is the same process that was used to make pictures during the Civil War. It was invented in 1848 by Frederick Scott Archer, an Englishman. The process involves creating a light sensitive emulsion on a metal plate (tintype) or glass plate (ambrotype), exposing the plate in the camera, and developing the plate. The process has to be completed before the chemicals dry out, hence the name wetplate. A darkroom is required. My darkroom is in a 5’x8′ covered trailer. That allows me to be mobile and make tintypes in the field.
How did you get your start in tintype photography?
Four or five years ago, I attended a workshop in Clarksdale, MS called Rebirth. It was hosted by some friends of mine…Will Jacks, Chris Williams and Sarah Hodzic. They billed the workshop as a workshop for photographers who were looking for “it” when they aren’t really sure what “it” is. We spent a week getting lost in the Mississippi Delta with a bunch of old analog cameras. There were writing exercises and photography demonstrations. There was a guy there doing tintype demonstrations by the name of Euphus Ruth, and it only took one time seeing the process for me to get hooked. I knew it was something I wanted to learn how to do. After the workshop, I spent a year reading about the process before I ever got the nerve to buy the chemicals. Like I said, that’s been four or five years ago now, and I’m still learning the process.
What is the inspiration behind your photography?
I’m not sure I truly know the answer to this question yet. I definitely feel the pull of the Delta. I just FEEL the history when I’m there…the struggle between black and white, rich and poor, good and evil, history and change. I’m happy when I’m there wandering. I’m really drawn to portraits, too. I’ve recently discovered the work of Julia Margaret Cameron. Her portraits from the 1860’s and 70’s are amazing. I would like to take my portrait work in this direction.
What are some of the most unique ways you’ve seen your photography used?
Butch Anthony is a pretty well-known artist in Alabama. He draws these really funky skeletons on old photos. I did some tintypes of some friends of his not too long ago, and I know he skeletonized at least one of them. It was quite the honor.
What is your favorite part of shooting weddings/bridal sessions?
I do occasionally get commissioned to shoot a wedding. They are usually creative types that know what tintypes are. The thing about tintypes, it is a really archival form of photography. Some of them have lasted over 160 years (and counting). If properly taken care of, tintypes will outlast the people in them (and anyone who knows them). That’s why I am really drawn to classic portraits, bridal portraits, etc. They become family heirlooms that should last a few hundred years.
What’s secretly your favorite type of photography that you do?
I love all of the old analog processes…tintype, film, polaroids, etc, but I still enjoy shooting digital, too. My favorite, by far, is tintypes. There’s nothing about the process I don’t like. I like the slow, methodical thinking required. I love smell of the chemicals. I love watching the images come to life in the darkroom. I love the look on people’s faces when they see the process. It really is the closest thing to magic I’ve ever seen.
How do you think your photography style can be used to tell a unique wedding story?
Shooting tintypes, by default, makes for a unique wedding story. Not only is it aesthetically different than everything else being done, but the subjects have to be present and involved through the process. Not only do you get a one-of-a-kind, tangible heirloom, but the experience of watching the image come to life is just icing on the cake.
What are some of your favorite wedding vendors in Mississippi?
I spent a couple years in the wedding circles. I don’t so much anymore, but here are a few of my absolute favorite: Erin Napier at Lucky Luxe, Will Jacks (photographer), Beth Morgan Cowan (photographer).