. . . well, one of them, at least. I already have one about music and another about old movies and theology. But this is the first time in about 15 years that I have had a blog that was about anything to do with me, namely my own artwork.
And that’s me. I didn’t take that portrait, though. That was done by Wes Fowinkle, a photographer in Memphis, TN specializing in wet plate processes like ambrotypes and tintype. So, why am I starting a blog about my own artwork by talking about someone else’s work? Because it goes a long way to illustrating how I wound up here in the first place.
I first encountered Wes through an ad posted on a coffee shop bulletin board in Memphis in October 2018. “Memento Tintype Studio is now accepting appointments,” it said. In a world where everyone carries a 12 megapixel digital camera in their pocket, there is really no practical use for wet plate photography. It was so unnecessary, so aggressively old-fashioned, I fell instantly in love with the idea. I said as much in an Instagram post and was soon offered a tour of the studio.
A few days later, I paid Wes a visit at his Midtown studio. He gave me a tour, showed me some of his work, then suggested I sit for an ambrotype (collodion on glass rather than metal) so I could see the whole process from start to finish. Though I won’t go into it here, the process is fascinating (here’s a video about it). But what really made an impression on me was the experience itself.
Staring down that ancient camera while Wes meticulously fine-tuned everything from the lights to the angle of my head, watching the image slowly emerge from the glass, are experiences few of us will ever have in a world ruled by the pursuit of the perfect selfie. There are no reshoots here (or hardly any). Every shot costs money and takes several minutes to produce. Technique and precision trumps repetition. Are the results any better than a hi-res digital photo with some creative filtering? I want to say yes, but I don’t know. What I do know is that I’ll remember taking this portrait long after I’ve forgotten every cell phone I’ve posed for, not because it is necessarily better, but because it was so hard.
I have since learned there is a growing community of people working in wet plate photography. I can’t pretend to know their individual reasons for pursuing this antiquated format, but I am encouraged to know they are out there. And if you’re in Memphis, pay a visit to Memento Tintype Studio.