Tintypes are back, and you want one.

photograph of a tintype of the author and her husband

The generation that grew up surrounded by cheap, mass produced plastic is rebelling by cultivating a taste for artisanal products, creating a growing market for unique, handcrafted items. The trend is also evident in photography, where the onslaught of digital photos, from snapshots to selfies, has all but destroyed the value of any single photograph. I was not surprised, therefore, to see a resurgence of daguerreotype and tintype photography, which creates one-of-a-kind images.

It is because of this that, when the in-laws asked for a portrait of my husband and myself for Christmas, I immediately rejected the idea of going to a Sears portrait studio (and similar options). If a portrait is going to be given as a gift, I thought, it should be special in a way that most photography is not. And daguerreotypes and tintypes ARE special; each item is a unique image – there are no negatives, no options for reprints, no possibility of touch-ups with photo editing software, etc.

Photograph of the tintype camera
The Archer & Co. camera

At first, I wanted to have a daguerreotype done, but then, like most people in the late 19th century, I realized that daguerreotypes are way too expensive and opted to go for a tintype instead. (In fact, the current culture of daguerreotypes and tintypes is much like the 19th century culture; daguerreotypes, due in part to their superior beauty, quality, and cost of materials, is more of a “high art” pursuit while tintypes, which are produced with a sheet of metal and a few dollars’ worth of chemicals, is the accessible hobby of a growing number of art students and hobbyists.)

Photograph of the photographer's studio

In the 19th century, the tintype was an equalizer; until this cheap and fast method of photography was developed, photography was accessible only to a wealthy elite. The tintype allowed common people a chance to obtain a luxury item at an affordable price, and they jumped at the chance. The proliferation of tintype photographers proved that the new method was a viable way to make a living, and only fell out of favor when even cheaper, easier methods of photography were developed. In archival parlance, tintype photography helped to diversify the archives; tintypes document the working class peoples of the late 19th century – the mill workers, janitors, street car conductors – and give us a visual window into their world.

My husband found a working tintype photographer, Phillip LeBlanc, in Providence, RI and we made an appointment to drive down there from our home in Boston. LeBlanc has a portable photography studio, and has been traveling to various festivals around New England. His company, Archer & Co. Tintype Photobooth, operates in the spirit of his 19th century predecessors – he provides access to a valuable, one-of-a-kind product at a low cost.

Photograph of several tintypes being rinsed in a sink
The tintypes are rinsed after the image is developed

It goes without saying that my husband and I were thrilled with our tintypes and that my in-laws were thrilled with their gift. My husband was concerned that LeBlanc wasn’t charging enough for his time and skills, and I was concerned that LeBlanc wasn’t traveling to Steampunk conventions. We shared our concerns with LeBlanc, and now I’m sharing them publicly – we know that there is a demand for tintypes that is not being met, and I hope that LeBlanc and other entrepreneurial tintype photographers will take advantage of it.

(One archival trouble that I would love to see is the problem of distinguishing between 19th century tintypes depicting regular folk and 21st century tintypes depicting Steampunk folk. Let’s make it happen, people!)


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