Let's imagine you're in an antiques store 150 years from now. What sort of artifacts would you be sifting through? Ancient MacBooks? Obsolete digital cameras? Quaint little Kindles? Whatever detritus from the 2000s may surface in that store, chances are there would be precious few photographs — nothing like the treasure trove of old, yellowed pictures that turn up at vintage shops, flea markets, and thrift stores today.
But the photo-hunter of the future needn't despair. Thanks to current photographers like local Christine Eadie, there will at least be tintypes — photographic images printed on thin sheets of metal using a method popularized in the 1860s and 1870s.
Eadie, who is an artist and photographer living in Ladson, is also known as the Charleston Tintypist. For the past year, Eadie has been creating a series of art tintypes, and since late summer she's been attending regional events — mostly Civil War reenactments, but some festivals as well — creating tintype portraits on the spot for interested attendees, giving them a tangible piece of their own history that they can take home that day. "I love that the process is so archival," she says. "With digital prints, we don't know how long they're going to last. I've found some tintypes that are 150 years old," she says.
Often (especially at the reenactments), those who sit for one of her tintypes dress in period clothing, but the photos look just as cool when the subjects are wearing contemporary clothes. Everyone looks striking and dramatic in a tintype.
Eadie is a Charlestonian by way of Sydney, Australia, and Greece — she was born in Sydney to Greek immigrant parents, who moved her to Greece when she was 16. She attended art school for painting while still living there, but began doing traditional photography for fun when she was in her 20s. "It was back in the 1990s, the age of the supermodel — Cindy Crawford, you know — and there were all these beautiful black and white portraits, and I wanted to do that," she says. She had a film shop develop her film for her back then, and when she went to pick up some of her photos the owner of the shop didn't believe they were hers — he was certain they were the work of a professional.
With that encouragement to spur her on, Eadie continued to teach herself photography. Since then, with a break here and there, she's worked in both art and commercial photography doing portraits and weddings.
Eadie got into tintypes in the spring of 2013, when she took a class on alternative photography methods. "I'd given up photography for about a year and wanted to get back into it," she says. "I fell in love with the [tintype] process."
Because of the complex chemistry involved in developing tintypes, it takes quite a while to master the method. Eadie uses the traditional wet-plate collodion process — a liquid collodion mixture (made of alcohol, silver nitrate, cadmium bromide, and other chemicals) is poured over a clean metal plate (Eadie uses aluminum), which is then placed in a bath of silver nitrate.
After that, the plate is put into an already aimed and focused camera, and the exposure is made by removing and then replacing the lens cap. An iron sulphate solution is poured over the plate to develop it, after which it is rinsed in clean water. Finally, the developed plate is put into a solution of potassium cyanide, then dried over a warm flame and varnished.
"It's very unpredictable," Eadie says. "You can get unpredictable results with the chemistry. Things change with temperature fluctuations — like if it's hot out, you have to add extra alcohol. Little things like that you learn along the way."
That unpredictability is actually part of the method's appeal for some practitioners, Eadie adds. "There are kind of two schools of thought. There are people who like messy work, playing with the chemicals to make it almost abstract. And there are others who want clean, technically perfect work." It's easy to tell into which group Eadie falls — her tintypes are clear and crisp, with exceptional lighting.
In addition to doing commissions and events, Eadie is also staying busy with her art tintypes. She participated in an invitational group show at the McMaster Gallery at the University of South Carolina back in August, presenting images from her ongoing series "Paper Dolls." And now that she's mastered the tintype, Eadie is interested in learning to make ambrotypes, which are similar to tintypes but use glass instead of metal. "The advantage is you can do multiples," she says. "You're able to make a negative and prints." With a tintype, on the other hand, one exposure equals one photograph.
But for Eadie, one of the most important things is that both methods create tangible images that can be passed down through generations. "One of my earliest memories is going through photo albums with my grandma and listening to her stories," she says. "We all know there's a story behind every photo."
To book a studio appointment or see where Eadie will set up her booth next, visit charlestontintypist.com.