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I would define myself as a highly tactile person so when I say let me see, I often mean let me touch or hold the object in question. Throughout this course, we have worked with the Black Portrait Collection virtually and enjoyed the luxury of a physical photographic materials study set at home for examination and reference. At the time of this writing, the collection is predominantly identified as tintypes. The following is an effort to relay the physical experience of handling一 I am inclined to say seeing 一 an uncased sixth plate tintype.
Sixth plate tintypes (approximately 2.75 x 3.25 inches/ 6.99 x 8.26 centimeters) are roughly the size and thickness of a standard playing card. Gather a card if you have any or any photograph of a similar size to hold onto for the experience. As a tintype is removed from its storage, you’ll hear a slight, metallic slide. When you hold it in your hands, your first instinct is to cup your hands gently around it in the same way you would cradle something precious and living. The metal will be cool to the touch and will slowly warm to your hands. The iron support is thin and will flex somewhat when handled. You’ll notice the sharpness of the corners and edges, giving you firm boundaries to respect. The back will likely reveal scarring and scratches in the warm brown lacquer layer. As you begin to take in the image on the front, you’ll notice the pour ripples, usually in the collodion (image) layer and emanating from one corner. Adjusting the angle to play with light, you’ll spot the texture variations revealing areas of hand-coloring to bring life to cheeks or small additions of gold to bring luster to buttons or pocket watches. As you engage with the sitter, you’ll feel questions arise in your mind. Who was this person? What can I know of them? What drove them to have their image made? As you return the tintype to its storage, you’ll be slightly more gentle than before and double-check your notes before returning the portrait to darkness again. An array of questions, of things unknowable, may linger for some time.
As I viewed Portrait of a Seated Man over a Zoom video call, with handling by Kit Fluker, Coordinator of Manuscript & Archival Processing in the University of Delaware Special Collections, I began to take note of the physical experience through my screen. First, of the sound this tintype made as Kit’s gloved hands gently sat it on the viewing platform, it quietly rang and rocked slightly as it balanced on the two eyelets passing through the plate. The lights reflected off the smooth surface, obscuring the portrait in bright light until the camera could reset. As Kit adjusted the portrait for me, I watched the light dance across the gold hand-coloring on the shirt buttons, pocket watch chain, and the spine of the book. Next, I noticed the partial thumbprint in the bottom right corner that the photographer likely left behind as they developed the plate, more evidence of people I may never know. Looking at the eyelets from the back, the tintype’s support warped around them, and the distortion serves as evidence of yet another person’s presence. Yet again, the dents, scratches, nicks, and other signs of past touch, of a person or persons that I cannot know. I wondered and still wonder: Why did they pierce your photograph? Did someone wear you? Close to their heart? Or hang you as a treasured keepsake? Who were you? Who took your image? Who cherished you and was cherished by you?
Thank you to the Winterthur/ University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, particularly Debbie Hess Norris and Morrigan Kelley, for the photo study kit, and the University of Delaware Special Collections, particularly Kit Fluker for providing live, digital access.
LaStarsha McGarity, May 2021, Black Portrait Collection