Suspended in Silver: Camp History & Photography Then and Now

Guest post by Robert Christian Malmberg

Color photo pf RCM, camera, model with caption: Malmberg with his large format camera on set at Broderson Backdrop Studio, 873 Broadway, New York, NY

Malmberg with his large format camera on set at Broderson Backdrop Studio, 873 Broadway, New York, NY

Starting Monday, August 11, photographer Robert Christian Malmberg will be photographing Camp History campers as people from the Civil War. We’ve asked him to guest-write a blog post for us to get to know him better. Here he is, in his own words:

My fascination with “alternative process” photography began in the back rooms of antique stores, sifting through boxes of old portraits and vintage photographs. I was always amazed by the craftsmanship that went into the earliest forms of the medium. While living in an ever-changing digital world, my desire to create something tangible with my own hands grew deeper. I wanted to get messy, to use photography as an art form. I soon discovered the “tintype” process, which I have been working with for over a decade now!

While the wetplate collodion process has changed quite a bit since the Civil War Era, the basic elements remain unchanged: sheets of glass (or metal, aka tintype) are coated with an emulsion (the collodion), dipped in liquid silver nitrate, loaded into a light-tight “plate holder”, exposed in the camera, and then hand developed as the latent image arrives from the abyss. The magic in the “reveal” of these final steps is a cross between alchemy and a quirky home science project!

There is a resurgence of wetplate work happening in the fine photography world today, which I find to be quite promising. It’s encouraging to see so many young photographers wanting to experiment with dated processes. Most current “wetplaters” stay pretty true to the time period, ie: staging Civil War Battle scenes or reenacting historical people and events. However, I’ve ALWAYS used the technique to photograph contemporary people, fashion, and subject matter.

john and luke

Left: John Ward, Jr., Lieutenant in 18th Regiment, NYSM in May 1861. Collection of the New-York Historical Society PR 012-3-494. Right: Original tintype by Robert. Model:Luke Ditella, styled by Altoriso, Groomed by Walton, Backdrop by Charles Broderson, Fashion by Tommy Hilfiger

In the above comparison, we can see how this process has transformed from the 1850’s to today. On the left, we see a portrait of a soldier from the Civil War. Early tintype plates like this one were almost always presented in an ornately crafted pocket frame. The plates were often cropped to conceal the imperfect edges and chemical errors. You will notice in my portrait of Luke to the right that I welcome sporadic grit and beautiful imperfections.  The hand poured image is like a fingerprint: no two are identical.

Aside from the obvious and drastic differences in fashion and lighting in the above photographs, there are many similarities: both men have stylized beards; both images have painted canvas backdrops; and both men have been posed deliberately by the photographer (notice the hands).

Unidentified Artist, Portrait of Two Girls, Collection of the New-York Historical Society, PR.012.1.326.Box12. Untitled Portrait, RCM

Left: Unidentified Artist, Portrait of Two Girls, Collection of the New-York Historical Society, PR.012.1.326.Box12. Right: Untitled Portrait, RCM

There are many visual differences between the portraits of yesteryear and today, even if the process is basically the same. In the above examples, we see children of the past on the left and a current tintype portrait I made of a child on the right. My specific technique offers a much warmer tone on the plate surface. Usually, time period plates have a much cooler, and sometimes greener, hue due to variables in the chemistry and processing times. Note on the left: it was very common for photographers to paint in a little “blush” on the cheeks of their sitters. This splash of color added warmth to the otherwise monochromatic portrait.

Isaac Rehn, Mrs. Charles S. Lewis (Elizabeth Harley), Matilda Anna Harley, and Hullina Harley, ca. 1860-1880, Collection of the New-York Historical Society, PR.012.1.361.Box14. 8x10” original tintype by Robert. Model: Nikki Alexa Reynen of  Click, styled by Altoriso, Hair and makeup by Jerry Lopez, Backdrop by Charles Broderson, Bridal gown by Elizabeth Fillmore

Left: Isaac Rehn, Mrs. Charles S. Lewis (Elizabeth Harley), Matilda Anna Harley, and Hullina Harley, ca. 1860-1880, Collection of the New-York Historical Society, PR.012.1.361.Box14. Right: 8×10” original tintype by Robert. Model: Nikki Alexa Reynen of Click, styled by Altoriso, Hair and makeup by Jerry Lopez, Backdrop by Charles Broderson, Bridal gown by Elizabeth Fillmore

Lastly, we can see the stark difference between these studio portraits of women. On the left, we see a group of women (probably sisters) posing stiffly with a forlorn countenance. The studio portraits of the era were generally created using window-daylight and very long exposure times. It was average for the sitter to hold completely still for 30 seconds to as long as 10 minutes! This often led to very serious facial expression as it’s easier to hold a straight face than a big cheeky smile.

Through the use of high voltage flash “pops” in my recent bridal portrait to the right, my exposures are very controlled, allowing for instantaneous capture. This is a major leap in technology from the era: it gives me control over the posing and facial expression. This was not a tool or luxury available to photographers of the 1860s.

We hope you’ve enjoyed the time travel through photography. For more information about camp history, email camphistory@nyhistory.org. Robert is also available for private portrait sessions by appointment only in his downtown NYC studio. For inquiries and to book your session please contact info@robertmalmberg.com or  917.202.0599. You can find him on Instagram at: @rcmgallery and online at www.robertmalmberg.com.

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This is a clubhouse blog for kids who love history! It is created by the staff of the DiMenna Children’s History Museum and New-York Historical Society.
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