Our primary focus in the area of vintage photography has been the Tintype. It is, however, the interesting and unusual image that draws us, so we may also offer ambrotypes, daguerreotypes, cyanotypes or photographs on paper dating to the early 1900s under the category Vintage Photography. Tintypes were a fashionable form of portraiture in the mid-1800’s. The development of the tintype created an inexpensive, fast, and portable means for those of even very limited incomes to have portraits made to hang in their homes, or send to distant family. These quietly powerful pieces have significance on a number of levels: they offer a glimpse into our cultural and social past, while having considerable aesthetic value as well. This collection of often humorous, sometimes touching, occasionally puzzling, portraits includes tintypes, daguerreotypes, and cyanotypes—all with hand-painted enhancements.
The most fascinating of painted tintypes are those that suggest the combination of reality with imagination; many are transparent attempts to improve upon reality—in what may have been an early version of the art of photo retouching. Once the viewer looks past the apparent quiet of the sepia tones and somber expressions, the additions are revealed. We see examples of making the plain "fancy" by the addition of lace, jewelry, or furnishings. Sometimes unintentionally amusing, these glimpses of the working poor and middle classes give us some insight into their lives.
We may smile at the painted addition of eye glasses, rings and pins, or the redrawing of a pair of ears whose shape was not naturally pleasing. But the appearance of dead babies, laid out in funereal finery embellished with paint, gives us pause. Upon close inspection, one can also find among the family portraits, ones with an odd member or two—perhaps the scale or the position just doesn’t fit. In some cases, space was left in such portraits for the addition of a photograph of a deceased family member.
Like so much of early American folk art, the painted tintype was often used to mark important events, such as a marriage—not unlike the listing of births or deaths in the family Bible, or the names and dates stitched into a sampler or quilt. In fact, the impulse to record and document may have been stronger than any need for artistic expression. The question with painted tintype portraits is whether the artist was attempting to make the documentation more realistic, or trying to improve on reality or fulfill a fantasy.
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