Tintype Portraits by Antonie Robertson

Antonie Robertson is a Dubai based commercial photographer and describes himself as a visual story teller. I feaured his 30 Mosques Project a couple of years ago and I am happy to feature his latest project with you today.

For the past few months, Antonie has been shooting portraits using the tintype process (also known as wet-plate photography), a 150 year-old technique where the process involves a photographic creation of a positive image on a metal plate.  Black anodised aluminium is coated with collodion; it is then sensitised in a bath of silver before being exposed in camera. After that it is hand processed to create the final image. The final results unique and ethereal.

(You can find a step-by-step guide to tintype/wet-plate photography here.)

Antonie is working on producing the first contemporary collection of tintype portraits of the UAE. I asked him a few questions about his project. Read on and enjoy looking at some of the portraits he shared with me.

The Culturist: What made you start using the tintype method for portraits? 

Antonie Robertson: I’ve known about the wet plate/tintype process along with the various other alternative photographic processes for a the better part of 14 years. It’s always interested me. Sally Mann was a big inspiration from the moment Immediate Family came onto my radar. But at that stage of my career it just wasn’t an economically sound option to focus on creative work solely.

I started shooting about five years before digital really became an option. My career in the beginning was heavily focused on creating images at the height of the analog era. I loved the craft of coaxing an emulsion through the right choice of format, processing and printing to create the look and feel that one wanted. There was an immense skill to being a professional image-maker that is now being completely lost due to the skillset change that the digital workflow has brought us.

Don’t get me wrong, I love digital, but it’s definitely a very different experience with it’s own rewards. Wet plate is a very involved process with distinct margins. It’s a different kind of discipline if you want to create good work. It has the potential to be truly beautiful in a way that cannot be replicated.

TC: How are you choosing people to photograph?

AR: Up until now, the people I photographed have been based on availability. Mostly, the people who were willing to sit for me got photographed. I also approached a few people I knew who would be visual.

TC: During a conversation we had a few months ago, you said each session is a learning experience. Have you mastered it by now or still learning?

AR:  There’s no doubt in my mind that I have a lot to learn. But I can see progress. And hopefully others can too. The process itself is not forgiving, so it forces you to be clear in your own mind about what you are doing and how you are going to go about it.

For instance, there is a very distinct difference in the approach to shooting woman versus men. With almost all the guys I’ve shot, I was really bold and hard with the light because it really accentuates the perception of manliness with the process. Ninety percent of the guys I shot are all done on a variation of one technique. But women need a much more nuanced approach. There is a definite subtlety to creating a visual experience of the feminine representation.

TC: How has the reaction been so far by the people you photographed?

AR: I prepared the people I photographed by sending them popular links on the web that explains what I’m going to shoot and how. And mostly it’s that interest that gets people in front of the lens. There really is an intrigue to the alchemy of it all. But it’s a very revealing process, and I’ve had very extreme reactions. From people ecstatically jumping up and down to much less enthusiastic.

I really think since it’s not a perfect digital representation of what you yourself see in the mirror everyday, it plays a lot about the perception that every person has of him or herself. And then you throw in all the physical factors like the state of the chemicals that day, specific lighting, processing, my esthetic, etc. and you really end up with a cocktail of love or hate.

TC: What are you planning on doing next? Will you continue with indoor portraits?

AR: Right now I’m finishing up the first batch of the online gallery, and in the first week of November all the hardware I need to make the process mobile will be finished. Some things can be purchased, but I’ve had to make a lot of the equipment myself. Then I’m taking it outside to take street portraits wherever I can in different locations. I’m going to push it as far as I can go during the cooler months in the UAE. I’ve already got a list of subjects lined up. But I’m also very open to ideas and suggestions.

TC: I am seeing more and more photographers in many cities using the same method. How do you think tintype photography can be taken to the next level?

AR:There definitely is a bandwagon forming. You had the precursors to the movement with people like Michael Shindler (co-founder of Photobooth in San Francisco) and Ian Ruther who are very widely published today. There is always a bandwagon. And like any medium it’s easy to chase the look and feel of what is trending at that moment in time.

I mean, just look at street art and the evolution from the 1980s hip hop style tags that led to big bold pieces. Then the focus shifted to stencils and stickers and then again to mini instillations, and now we are seeing people going back to very intricate painted work. As an art form, tintypes will have its own evolution.

TC: How can you differentiate yourself from what the others are doing?

AR:  Think of musicians and what they have at their disposal, basically what’s been around right from the start. Each musician takes that and melts it into their own creation, their own sound. We have the same parallels for painting, sculpture and even architecture. We just need to see where the individuals practicing the art will take it.

For me personally, there are very distinct aspects I want to focus on. Portraiture will feature strongly in my work. It always has and I think my approach to story telling should shine through it strongly too. 


Thanks Antonie. Personally I am looking forward to the next phase of this project when Antonie goes out to shoot tintype portraits (and I need to pluck up some courage and accept Antonie's request to get myself tintyped too). 

If you are in Dubai later this month, you can see Antonie Robertson at Slidefest on 30th October where he will present his tintype portraits and talk about the process.


[All images courtesy of Antonie Robertson]