19th century tintype portraits have a unique charm.  Each member of this family of 5 photographed around 1870 has a quality that makes us look, again and again.  Found here.

Part of it is likely because the people in this and other historic tintypes lived a different life than we do–shorter, less comfy, less connected, less concerned with minor celebrities–so we are attracted by the differentness. But there is something else too.  It seems as if virtually every face captured in these simple, quick, cheap photographic portraits is interesting.  How can that be?  It makes no sense, and yet…

We haven’t been able to take our eyes off this young woman since we saw her.  And look at those buttons.  There are lots and lots of these people, including the 4 gals below, to be found at a jam packed site devoted to “Nova Scotia Faces” located here.

By her size, she might be 4 years old. By the look on her face, she could be 35.

Dark, pensive, challenging.  No doubt the object of one fiery romance after another–some ending in gunshots.

“Now Mrs Belsin, I know you don’t really mean it when you say you’d rather be boiled in road tar than to let me take your magnificent daughter Swantilla to the annual Breeders’ Ball next Friday.”


This is, roughly, how a tintype photo was taken.  You had to be still for about 3 seconds, then the image was developed, on metal (a thin sheet of blackened iron, not tin) within minutes and handed to you.  From here

Then as now, not everyone was happy to have their picture taken.

(This above from Yale no less)

And some were provided with–or brought with them–props for added interest.

Is that a slingshot she’s whittling? You can make up your own caption.

There are lots of books and exhibitions showing tintypes from the last third of the 19th century

Like this one above. by Steven Kashner

And there are still tintypes being made by current photographers and artists.  Two artists who use tintype methods for their work: John Coffer and Jayne Hinds Bidaut.

Jayne Hinds Bidaut often uses tintype photography for animal and insect portraits  From this nice site Luminous Lint.  More of her work here

John Coffer is someone who has lived a life that largely parallels that of the original tintype photographers.  He is now legendary as a teacher of the form.  Above John Coffer image from here.

There is an article in the New York Times about him, including a narrated slideshow.  John Coffer, New York Times, 2006

Admirable though these contemporary efforts are, for us the mysterious (haunting?) quality of the old tintypes is still supreme.

Like the 135 year old tintype of this little lady.

or this Miss.

Or this remarkable young woman found  at “Family Tree Magazine”

Is it the tintype process or the people?  Do we still HAVE people like this?  We’ll keep looking.