Luther Gurlach and Tintype Photography

June 4, 2015


Photographs with the image printed on a metal service are called tintype. The process behind this is called wet plate collodion; it is a mixture of chemicals that are light sensitive. This mixture coats the glass plate — which is now the negative — then the negative turns into a positive when mounted on a reflective surface.

Starting in the late 1800’s, it is one of the first affordable photographic processes, and because the tintype was such a cheap process and usually low quality, anyone could get an inexpensive picture taken at the beach or carnival by itinerant photographers.

Luther Gerlach is a master practitioner of the wet plate collodine process and theory. He is recognized and used by the Getty Museum for their demonstrations and workshops in the medium. Luther is also the owner and operator of the world’s largest “mammoth” wet plate collodine camera.

Every semester our photography students are invited to Luther’s studio in Ventura, CA for a demonstration of the process and tour of his studio or they meet him on location. The students are always taken back in time as Luther sets up his camera — in a field, beach, house, street or his studio — and composes the photograph with the students in it.

Luther then goes to his truck, which is his custom-built mobile darkroom, and prepares the plate to make the exposure. First, he pours the collodine over a piece of glass. He then immerses it in a tray of silver nitrate. While damp, the plate is put into a light, tight box to be transferred from the mobile darkroom truck to the camera. Here it is put into a special plate holder inside the camera for the exposure. The cap is taken off the lens and the plate is exposed to light. The exposure times range anywhere from 20 seconds to ten minutes, depending on the light. Once the time is up, the plate is removed and the photo is ready. If a subject moves during the timed shoot, it will blur them in the final image. Once dry, the image is then varnished to preserve it

This historical process is difficult, frustrating and slow, though it creates a final image that is eerie yet aesthetically beautiful.