In his stark white kitchen in Rock Hill, photographer Jeff Howlett gently pours clear yellow liquid onto an aluminum plate, turning the black rectangle at angles so the substance coats the plate without running off the sides.
He disappears behind a curtain into his laundry room, which doubles as a makeshift darkroom and places the collodion-covered plate in a silver nitrate bath, where it sits for a few minutes while he preps his 99-year-old camera – a 1915 Speed Graphic with a 1903 Zeiss Tessar lens – on a tripod in the living room.
When the 4-by-5-inch plate, is ready, he slides it into a plate holder and places it in the camera. Sitting on a wood-framed antique sofa, his subject remains cautiously still, eyes glued open in anticipation. The flash pops and a blinding light explodes like a firework.
Back in the darkroom he pours developer on the plate, which creates a negative image. Then he washes it in a mix of chemicals called photo fixer. Slowly a positive image appears on the metal.
“It’s like an old-school Polaroid,” says Howlett, 45, beaming with enthusiasm. He charges usually between $30 and $50 for a portrait sitting, where you receive a physical tintype.
“There is something magical about seeing the image come alive in the fixer. I’ve seen it a thousand times and it still astounds me,” echoes Charlotte photographer Troy Tomlinson, who does tintype photography at Flaming Chicken Studio and is using the process in photographing North Carolina state parks. “This process is photography at its raw roots. There’s nothing else like it...”
In the age of the selfie, sitting for a portrait is a rarity as well. It takes Howlett 15 to 20 minutes to shoot and develop a single tintype, a process that first became popular during the Civil War.
That doesn’t include the preparation of cutting the plates (which are no longer tin but aluminum that’s normally used for trophy engravings), mixing the chemicals, and chatting up the people he’s photographing. Yet the results are often stunning and revealing.
Howlett grew up in Waynesboro, Va., before moving to Burlington where he lived for 20 years. He played in punk bands and went to film school. He moved to Charlotte three years ago to be close to his two children. He began shooting tintypes a little over a year and a half ago.
Lately, when he’s not working as an IT tech, he’s shooting tintypes at his home studio and at events and shops such as NoDa thrift store the Rat’s Nest. He recently shot members of the Iron Lords Car Club in Concord.
He and Chris Morgan, a Raleigh-based photographer who worked with him at Hopscotch, will spend New Year’s Eve shooting at Neighborhood Theatre’s nautical-themed Overboard II party where they’ll set up a mobile darkroom.
When Morgan started shooting wet plates while playing an itinerant photographer in Civil War re-enactments 13 years ago, there were only a handful of practicing tintype photographers in the U.S. He’s watched its popularity grow. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last known photograph is one of several celebrity tintypes taken by a photographer at the Sundance Festival this year.
Morgan estimates there are only a handful of active shooters in the Carolinas. A school administrator in Johnson County who shoots almost exclusively in tintype, Morgan agrees there’s something special about it.
“This is so hands-on and time-consuming, but at the same time it’s also instant gratification,” Morgan says. “There’s no tweaking or playing with it in Photoshop in order to have the image finished.”
As for that revealing, ethereal quality?
“It’s sensitive to the light that’s reflected off your skin,” Morgan says. “You see those nuances (in the photos). Film can’t see that same color. Digital can’t, and our eyes don’t see it. Collodion sees in UV, so it sees in a different light color, capturing something you don’t normally see.”
While Morgan and Howlett revel in the process, not everyone has the patience.
“I’ve shot people with a digital mentality,” Howlett says. “That’s why I got into this. Let’s slow everything down. When I got back into shooting film, I loved the beauty and tactile feel. (With tintypes) I’m creating the film every time I shoot.”
Plus, he can’t just delete it. “I’ve got to make my shot count.”