Photographer Ellen Leathers-Wishart Is Making 19th-Century Tintype Portraits Cutting-Edge Again

Ellen Leathers-Wishart has made her photo studio the most in-demand photo booth in Dallas.EXPAND
Ellen Leathers-Wishart has made her photo studio the most in-demand photo booth in Dallas.
Shamsy Roomiani
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In photography, there’s seemingly no room for industry progress, or in entrepreneurial parlance, “disruption.”

Think about it. Professional photographers can take pictures that look more lifelike than life itself, and any layperson can take high-definition pictures and videos simply by pulling a handheld computer out of their pocket. How could anyone possibly make this process more convenient? How could anyone advance the quality of modern photography when there are virtually no blemishes to counter?

See, we have reached the peak of the summit, and instead of continuing to go up, many of us are choosing to go back.

Case in point, Polaroid cameras have made a resurgence in recent years, and Instagram became the tech giant it is today thanks to an array of filters that can make digital photos look more vintage and lo-fi. These nostalgic proclivities have helped vitalize the photography industry, and since it’s an intensely saturated market, many proprietors have to make their offerings more innovative and novel to stay competitive. Dallas-based photographer Ellen Leathers-Wishart has certainly achieved that, and her work will make you feel like you’re in the ’70s.

The 1870s, that is.

Leathers-Wishart’s core competency as a photographer lies in her use of the tintype medium, whose origins go back a few years before the American Civil War.

“Basically, [tintype] is the second form of photography ever invented,” Leathers-Wishart explains. “1854 is when it was patented by a guy named [Frederick Scott] Archer. It was really popular because it was the first time that it was mobile and cheap enough for people to take on the road.”

Interestingly enough, the mobility is an attribute that Leathers-Wishart takes full advantage of, as her studio stands atop a 16-foot trailer. Leathers-Wishart, a former carpenter, constructed the studio herself, and the unit sits humbly in Lower Greenville, on the Death or Glory Tattoo parking lot.

I walk into Leathers-Wishart’s studio on a brisk Saturday afternoon. To the left of the entrance is a closet-sized darkroom with supplies and a sink. To the right, a far more spacious area with a stool, three large, adjustable lamps and a camera that likely witnessed the Reconstruction era. The entire setup is a far cry from the softboxes and umbrellas found in most traditional studios.

“I’d love to take a tintype of you,” Leathers-Wishart says. “It’ll give you a better understanding of how things work.”

I sit down on the stool as instructed, as Leathers-Wishart coats collodion oil on a small metal plate in the darkroom. After giving a brief primer (no pun intended) on the history of tintype photography, Leathers-Wishart discusses her beginnings in the industry: She used to work with a portrait photographer named Giles Clement, whose previous clients include Nick Offerman, Channing Tatum and Regina Spektor. His guidance was crucial to her launch, but most of her education came from YouTube videos and online research.

Before the prospect of being a tintype photographer even existed, Leathers-Wishart lived in Huntsville, where she moved to tend to her dying grandfather. During this time, she worked for the Huntsville-based construction company Phoenix Commotion, under the supervision of designer Dan Phillips. Leathers-Wishart’s job entailed constructing and modeling homes entirely out of recycled material, and her time outside of work was partially spent in a small woodshop.

“I’ve been building ever since,” she recalls, before changing the subject. “OK, so sit up a little bit.”

The topic of the discussion reverts back to the process of creating a tintype. As I sit still, she adjusts the camera settings in preparation for the snapshot. Leathers-Wishart asks if I want to smile or take on a serious expression for the shot. I choose the latter.

“Yeah, a lot of people do [a serious face], because traditionally, you couldn’t smile,” she explains. “Usually, the exposures were really long. So you have the option to smile in here, but most people here do a serious [face].”

Leathers-Wishart walks back into the darkroom and pulls the blank tintype from a container, where it's submerged in a pool of collodion oil. She loads it onto a plate, then comes back to put the camera in focus. After instructing me to sit still, she puts the plate in a canvas-sized slot that's directly in front of the camera’s eye cup. She counts to three, then pushes the button. The flash is abrupt and bright, so I involuntarily blink. Naturally, I become afraid that my eyes would be closed in the portrait.

“My flash caught the image right before you blinked,” Leathers-Wishart assures me.

After a brief run to the darkroom, she returns with a rubber container with the tintype inside. As she pours a beaker of sodium thiosulfate onto the sheet, she explains that this is done to dissolve all the exposed silver. She pours the excess liquid back into the beaker, and seconds later, a surprisingly detailed, black-and-white portrait materializes.

The process, and visit, is a truly fascinating experience, and the fact that the taking of a photograph is an experience is itself an impressive feat. Perhaps the biggest selling point of tintypes is the perceived warmth of the photo renderings, but you also learn in granular detail how those Civil War photos and postbellum portraits seen in history textbooks were created.

It also provides insight into just how far we have come in photography. The one session with Leathers-Wishart took approximately 15 minutes, and back when this was cutting-edge technology, the idea of a layperson being able to capture a color photo with a portable device would have been inconceivable, never mind the 14 minutes, 50 seconds it would save.

The photography discipline has ventured so far, in fact, that there’s no frontier left to be explored. Technological advances in photography have gone so far that, ironically, a demand for vintage photography has increased. While subsequent methods are still commonly practiced, tintype photography, as niche as it is, has a dedicated, underserved market that Leathers-Wishart is tapping into. Her roaming studio is often found at events around town.

“There’s definitely been a resurgence in the past 10 years,” she says. “Everything is so digital, and this is just fascinating to people.”

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