Photographs and a Conversation

Emily Louise Smith: Why tintypes?

Harry Taylor: Historic processes create one-of-a-kind artifacts. At a recent show, someone of obvious culture and age grabbed me by the arm and said, “This is amazing, where did you find them?” I replied, “On the river.”

For nearly twenty years, I’ve tried to create a certain look in my pictures. I had taken film and digital as far as they could go. So I made my own cameras and found obscure lenses. Wet-plate collodion was the natural progression. This was the norm in the middle nineteenth century but largely disappeared around 1890.

ELS: Could you describe the process?

HT: It’s a slow, thoughtful process of long, staring exposures and antique cameras. Raw chemicals are mixed according to nineteenth-century formulas, most far more hazardous than those found in the black-and-white darkroom. One must be very present while doing this. After the darkroom is prepared, I start with a sheet of glass or blackened steel. I pour the salted collodion onto the plate and place it in a bath of silver nitrate. From here it is taken to the camera and exposed wet. Back to the darkroom for developing, fixing (removing the unused silver, rendering it insensitive to light) drying, and at last a varnish. This takes an hour, more or less. One good day might yield ten plates.

ELS: How does the river inspire you?

HT: I visited the Cape Fear River several times as a child and feel as if I have always known it. At a point in the 1990s, I was living in Oregon, feeling homesick (as all true Southerners do!), when someone passed me a copy of a novel with a scene describing freedmen returning to Africa, crossing the river on a hot night in a fog of spirits. Nights are never hot in Oregon. Soon after, I returned to Wilmington to be near this river and to make these feelings into images. In certain places, this river feels untouched; in other places, it’s the usual trash people leave behind. Nearly always the traumas of history are palliative.

ELS: Your subjects have mesmerizing, soulful expressions. Do you know them, and if not, how do you find them?

HT: People seem to think that I tell people to look a certain way or look unhappy, or tell them something sad. I don’t. When faced with a large camera and a 150-year-old lens that has recorded images of lives since Lincoln was president, subjects succumb to their own view of interpretation. Within the intimacy of an eight-second exposure, the look I see is one of self-reflection, as if they are looking into a mirror. I know and pursue some people, others come forward as they have something to say.

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