Atemporality in Action: Recreating Civil War-Era Tintype Photography

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Photographer Robert Shimmin has revived a 150-year old photographic tradition known as "tintype" in which photos are printed directly on a lacquered sheet of iron. The image you see is technically a negative; the dark parts are the metal showing through, while the light parts are formed by the emulsion.

Tintype initially got popular because it was a one-step process -- the negative is the print -- and that allowed photographers to pump out the images quickly. They were popular in public settings like amusement parks, where mobile photographers could snap your image and hand it to you after a few minutes.

But if you want to get a feel for why tintype is would be interesting as an artform, I think Shimmin nails it. There's something about our proximity to this technology that makes it more interesting than film or digital photography.

"Even shooting a modern subject, it almost looks like it's from another time period that you can't quite pin down," Shimmin says. "So you're looking at something that's of today but not necessarily of today."

In other words, using the older technique unmoors the image from the progression of photographic technology. The tintypes Shimmin makes could have been produced any time in the last 150 years. While normally it is the newest technology that blows us away -- the Lytro, say -- using the oldest tech can be sublime, too. And when you're talking about tintype in an HD video posted to Vimeo and linked via Twitter, your images suddenly say that you're not just up with recent times, you're up with all times.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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