Sunday, December 11, 2011

The stain

"The little tintypes, and their more elegant cousins the ambrotypes and daguerrotypes, provide the oldest direct connection to the visual past that we can depend upon. All photography is fictional, by which I mean that any photograph is a picture, not the world from which it was generated. But these little bits of early photography pull that fiction closer to the world than any pictures known. Many other photographic techniques make pictures that "look" more like the world, but the early direct-positive photographs on glass and metal bear the actual stain of light from the past." — Richard Benson, The Printed Picture

Three of these tiny images were produced by photographic studios in Philadelphia, possibly as early as the 1860s, though they could be somewhat later. The other is unlabeled but may be from the same city, as they were purchased together. The first three photographs above, of which the visible part is less than an inch high, are tintypes (or "ferrotypes" as they were then called); the last, which is slightly larger than an inch, is probably an albumen print. The embossed mounting cards, which were manufactured by several companies and sold in bulk to photographers, are about four inches high.

None of the sitters can be identified. The images that were intended to capture their likenesses for posterity now display only disinherited chemical traces, while preserving, ironically, the names of three of the photographic studios on the backs of the cards. Below, for instance, is the reverse of the card shown at the top of this page.

An Albion K. P. Trask (c. 1830-1900), born in Maine, was active in Philadelphia from the 1860s until his retirement in 1891. He was the author of Trask's Practical Ferrotyper, a popular manual, and his passing was duly noted in the pages of Wilson's Photographic Magazine, where it is observed that "many of the prominent photographers of to-day served an apprenticeship under him." If this photograph is in fact from his studio (there is some indication of an "E. K. Trask" being active in Philadelphia at the same time) it was probably produced before 1870, as he operated from a different address on 8th Street (and later still from Chestnut Street) after that date.

Trask's book mentions C. L. Lovejoy, whose studio produced the second image from the top; below is the reverse.

According to The American Tintype, an outstanding reference volume compiled by Floyd Rinhart, Marion Rinhart, and Robert W. Wagner, Charles Lovejoy (they list his middle initial as "K") operated his tintype studio c.1864-67, and was also Secretary of the Ferrotype Association of Philadelphia during that period.

There's no studio name on the third tintype, but the albumen print is the work of the United Photographic Company of No. 808 Arch Street in Philadelphia. In this case since there is no hole in the card (the image appears to be pasted onto the front) the address is printed directly on the back of the card, rather than on the labels that were pasted on to reverse of the others. The delicate design surrounding the photo gives the only clue to the sitter's possible identity, as there is a letter "C" on both sides of his name. Did the studio have borders for each letter in the alphabet?

On the first two tintypes there are faint traces of added tint to give the women rosy cheeks.

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