Story by Fred Nadis
Lana, a slender woman in a red dress, Darrick, her bearded companion, and their brown Labrador dog, Jay Brown, find their way through the large chain-link gate into Santa Barbara’s only time machine—aka “La Chambre Photographique.” In the steadily gentrifying Funk Zone, just around the corner from a heavily advertised “gentlemen’s club,” this is the only place in town where you can sit for a tintype portrait and transport yourself to the 19th century.
The proprietor is Lindsey Ross. Slightly sunburned, her blonde bangs cut straight, wearing black coveralls flecked with paint and boots laced around the middle, the 33-year-old photographer waves to her clients while still wearing white latex gloves. Rock music plays from her corrugated metal studio, a two-story structure with an open hayloft and peaked roof. Inside the compound, Jay Brown trots by an old green and white Ford pickup truck (purchased in Colorado during a powder skiing photo shoot), an outdoor sink, a firepit and a stack of firewood mixed with cattle bones and a seal skull.
The front of the two-story shed is an art gallery, while to the rear, where Ross works, brown photographic chemistry bottles mingle alongside bottles of mineral water and a freezer holds still-life subjects to be: a dead lizard and a frozen goldfinch.
Since 2012, Ross’s studio has offered clients a unique product: portraits using the “wetplate” photographic process created in 1850. When printed on metal, these are known as tintypes; if printed on glass, ambrotypes. Once her clients arrive, she goes into her darkroom to prepare a photographic plate, pouring on it collodion (a gelatinous substance, originally invented to close surgical wounds), letting it slightly harden, then dips and leaves the plate in a silver nitrate bath. After five minutes, she takes it from the bath and sets it in a lightproof holder; it is now camera ready.
While setting up her large format 1915 camera, Ross and her clients talk about the portrait and soon decide against posing in Ross’s pickup truck. Instead, she brings out a purple velvet couch and places it in front of the corrugated metal, and they try to get Jay Brown to sit. He refuses. Ross focuses and frames the shot with a hood over her head, behind the bellows. Then she steps out, inserts the wetplate holder into the back of the camera, and tells them, “I’m going to count down 3-2-1, and then I’ll open the shutter. It will take seven seconds. You can blink, but don’t move your head or your eyes.”
Minutes later, she brings the finished tintype from the darkroom. Darrick glances at it and says, “Weird.” His intonation suggests it is a good “weird.” They continue to mull, pleased.
Subjects in a tintype look both ghostly and more substantial than usual, their images captured in its thickened chemistry, as if in flattened amber. The long exposure usually means there are no smiles, and the hand-mixed chemistry can offer unusual distortions, yet through it all, people emanate the fierce dignity common to 19th-century portraits.
I ask Ross why photographers are turning to such archaic techniques in the age of Twitter and Instagram. She says that, for her, it is “the pace of the wetplate—it’s slow and people have to be present. To be sincerely themselves. Wetplate strips down to the elemental self. It creates a more vulnerable portrait. The whole thing resonates with me.”
As for the “weird” factor, Ross reflects, “A wetplate portrait is eerie. It references the past. Makes things look really mortal. In fact, it makes things look dead.” The wetplate is only responsive to blue and ultraviolet light—so if you are blue-eyed your irises will appear white—while any object with pigment other than blue comes out as black. She shows a tintype she took of a lightly colored orchid with petals that appear black. She also has photographed fish heads, gathered from a local market, and because light bounced off their scales so well, she says the fish heads look perky and alive. “The process reorders what we associate with life and death.”
Ross’s interest in photography began in childhood, when she helped her father, David Ross, in the darkroom—he has since retired as a college administrator but remains passionate about photography. Originally setting out to be a photojournalist, Ross shifted to fine arts as a student at Brooks Institute, when teacher Tim Bradley showed her class mug shots taken in about 1905. The convicts’ names and crimes such as “petit larceny” were handwritten on the shots. She was amazed at the directness and soul-baring quality of these portraits. “Tim always asked us, ‘Does this tell us something new about the human experience?’” Her answer, in this case, was “yes.” Pursuing this new course, in 2011, she apprenticed with Luther Gerlach, a Ventura photographer who specializes in tintypes and ambrotypes. In 2012, she opened “La Chambre Photographique.”
Her work is in demand: five of her tintypes were in the “Tonalism Now” show at Sullivan Goss gallery in fall 2013. Jeremy Tessmer, the art dealer who brought her work to this noted Santa Barbara venue, comments that her tintypes’ “handmade nature harkens to a time before Photoshop, when images were unique and still inspired wonder. Her work also has a wild quality I respond to.”
Along with Ross and her mentor Gerlach, many photographers currently experiment with tintypes, including Sally Mann. Tessmer traces this renewed interest to “an ongoing fascination with authenticity and the artisanal.”
While Ross is part of the tintype revival, she hasn’t signed on to the revival of an even older format, the daguerreotype, invented in 1839, which creates minutely detailed images on polished metal. Throughout the 19th century, wealthy and middle-class clients would habituate posh “Daguerrean studios,” while the less affluent would pose for traveling tintype photographers. Ross has no interest in making daguerreotypes. The process not only involves toxic chemicals, but also is very finicky technically. “The wetplate is flexible, forgiving. I like its fluidity.” She adds, “As you can tell from my studio, I have a gritty sensibility. My aesthetic is hands-on.”
Meanwhile, Lana and Darrick contemplate one more portrait. Jay Brown jumps up on the purple velvet couch and strikes a pose. If he can last seven seconds, blinking, but otherwise immobile, this may be his moment.
Originally published in the Fall 2014 issue of Santa Barbara SEASONS Magazine.