There is a special thrill reserved for flipping through old photographs. Images of bygone times, people and places evoke a powerful nostalgia, with Polaroids and Kodak disposables providing glimpses into the past as warm and grainy as dreams themselves.
But a different form of photography, the much older and even more hands-on tintype, has taken hold in Asheville. Several local photographers are offering services in the medium and creating tangible, visually distinct memories.
Tintype was introduced in the mid-19th century and requires the application of a collodion-nitrocellulose solution to a thin metal plate before exposure. The result is a metallic, gray-and-dark photograph that lends satisfying heft and a timeless aesthetic.
It was the one-of-a-kind, tactile nature of tintype photographs that drew Sara Mulvey to the form. In 2015, her mother gave her an antique cigar box full of old tintypes of what Mulvey’s grandmother — the collection’s previous owner — claimed were long-passed family members. Though she doesn’t know for certain that the people in the photos are in fact relatives, she chooses to believe they are, and the box remains within arm’s reach in her Revelry Tintype studio in the River Arts District.
“It could be the biggest joke my grandmother has taken to her grave, or it could be true,” Mulvey says. “But yeah, supposedly these are my relatives.”
She continues, “I was enamored by [the tintypes]. You feel like you can dive into them. These people are obviously long gone, but I feel like I know them. It’s the thing when people get their portrait taken, it’s something different. You can’t really put your finger on it, but it’s there.”
Prior to receiving the box, Mulvey’s photography experience was limited to using disposable cameras at sleepovers, but she decided on the spot that she needed to explore the visceral curiosity the old pictures spurred. She sought out John Coffer, a key figure in the revival of wet-plate photography, as a mentor and continues to visit him twice a year at his farm in Dundee, N.Y.
“It was like a hobby that kind of blossomed and went crazy,” she says.
David Humphreys found his way to tintype a bit more gradually. After more than 30 years of professional photography experience, with a special interest in fine art black-and-white photography, he moved from Tallahassee, Fla., to Asheville in 2003 and, around 2010, discovered tintype while browsing images on various websites.
“I did a little investigation and started studying the process online and just really kind of fell in love with the look of it,” Humphreys says. “I like the kind of rough-around-the-edges feeling of it. There are certain aspects of it — like, the eyes of subjects look very different, almost kind of a liquid-y look to them. Especially if you have blue eyes, it makes your blue eyes look very light in color — almost otherworldly, I guess.”
Humphreys already had the camera equipment necessary to begin shooting in the form and purchased the requisite wet-plate chemicals from an online listing. Three years ago, he opened Asheville Tintype in a Woodfin riverside studio.
Like many small makers and businesses, Mulvey and Humphreys have been forced to innovate in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and with respect for social distancing guidelines. Humphreys has been hosting his clients on the front porch of his home off Charlotte Street, taking the photos in the open air and then retreating to his new portable darkroom in a converted Volkswagen bus.
The bus still runs, and Humphreys outfitted it with blackout fabric and custom framing. He occasionally takes it out for location shoots, but the majority of his recent work has been on his own property.
Humphreys has plans to do more on-location work moving forward, including taking the bus into downtown Asheville and shooting photographs from its roof rack. “Then I can come down and go inside the darkroom and do it right there,” he says.
While Mulvey’s Toyota Tacoma doesn’t make quite the same splashy entrance as Humphreys’ set of wheels, it’s become her mobile base despite moving into a new studio just as the pandemic was erupting.
“It’s so gear-intensive,” she says of the mobilization. “I have to take a complete darkroom setup, my chemistry, my silver bath tank — which is what the plate gets put into — camera, stands … everything. So, I’m working out of the back of my truck, and my stuff pretty much stays in there, but I think it’s a lot more fun this way.”
Despite building her business mostly on indoor portraits, Mulvey originally learned to shoot outside, and the return to her roots has proved rewarding.
“I think, more than anything, people always take pictures, but it definitely is something more special if I can come to you — and it’s unique and different in a way that it’s a one-off,” she says. “You’re not going to be able to reproduce that.”