Issue #174  9/14/2010
Tintype Archetypes, and a Revisited "Slow Burn"

By Matt Damsker



Includes an interview with Paul Cava by Heather Snider, courtesy of Eyemazing Magazine. Paul Cava Fine Art Photographs, 35 Union ave., Bala Cynwyd, PA 19004. First edition: 250 copies; softbound; 44 pages, 32 color plates. ISBN No. 978-0-9707966-2-2. Information: http://www.paulcava.com; phone: 1-610-664-3348.

Ah, the tintype! Least expensive, least time-consuming and thus the most democratic of all the early photographic processes, and so the first widely popular American photo medium. Also known as ferrotypes, tintypes were made by coating a thin sheet of lacquered iron with light-sensitive collodion emulsion and then making a one-of-a-kind exposure. They flourished from the 1850s through the 1930s, countless and generally casual in their depictions of American life, and are now justly treasured for their simple, often artless evocations.

Pennsylvania-based artist and collector Paul Cava certainly treasures them, and his collection of some 200 tintypes is made up of mostly large-plate specimens, ranging in size from 4 x 5 to 9 x 7 inches. As he explains to Heather Snider in the interview included in this fascinating catalogue, he's attracted to these vintage works not so much by a specific collector imperative as by "visual engagement…I suppose what draws me to them is a sense of recognition, a sense of self: the stern righteousness of the freemason, the delight in the eyes of the girl with the polka dot dress, the poignant isolation in the woman's face with thin hair, the awkward impatience of the twin boys."

Indeed, Cava's eloquent descriptions capture the haunting naturalism of these low-tech, usually unfussy examples of early photo-portraiture. The solo sitters, or the families posed in awkward groupings, often against inelegant studio backdrops or in simple country settings, convey a blend of innocence and a certain life-is-hard resignation as they face us, all of them unsmiling, with simple dignity. The at-work groupings of carriage-shop employees, brickmakers and carpenters, for example, are the soul of rugged Americana, as are the farmers atop their hay wagons.

But it's the more formal portraits that arrest our gaze--a woman and young girl by a river bank (1870), posed against two gnarled trees, the woman outfitted in funereal black, the girl in white, a canoe at their feet as if they are about to brave the river Styx; or a young man, fur-hatted, posed next to his loyal black dog, the unforced harmonies of the composition sublimely strange (a triangle of white fur on the dog's breast, a white triangle of shirt and tie on the man's). These and other visions, of twin brothers and sisters, or of children posed as bride and groom, all rigidly, somberly staring us down, evoke something of Michael Lesy's classic 1973 book, "Wisconsin Death Trip." That macabre montage of vintage photos and accounts of a small town in the grip of the depression of the 1890s focused the power of its tintypes in a fresh and ghostly way, and so does Cava's catalogue.




Originally published in 1986 by University of Pennsylvania press, re-published in 2010 by the Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, PA. 151 pages, approximately 35 black-and-white plates; softbound. ISBN No. 978-0-271-03681-6.

When it first appeared in 1986, Renée Jacobs' "Slow Burn" was a potent work of photo-journalism, one of the few to focus on the impact of an environmental disaster. It chronicled the underground coal mine fire that eventually routed a small Pennsylvania town, Centralia (it hardly exists today, except for a few stubborn residents, while the fire still smolders beneath). Though widely chronicled over the past two decades, the fate of Centralia was hardly of a piece with Chernobyl, Katrina, Haiti, or even this year's Gulf oil spill, but it stood pointedly in the shadow of the nearby near-disaster of Three Mile Island as another example of feckless industrialism and its hapless victims.

Re-published now, Jacobs' photos and her interviews with the residents of Centralia--some of whom, notably Helen Womer, fought stubbornly against the resettling of the town's population, claiming somewhat naively that the underground smoke-out wasn't worth fleeing from--don't quite stand time's test. Less poignant than matter-of-fact, these snapshot images of baffled small-town life, with a few exceptions, fail to suggest much more than unfortunate circumstance.

Despite it all, these images of homeowners patiently sitting by while EPA employees monitor their homes for carbon monoxide, or of angry town meetings, or of children playing amidst the danger are somewhat flat representations of the everyday, while the sense of tragedy that Jacobs wants us to feel doesn't quite resonate. When we consider that the solution to the problem--a government buy-out of homes and a nearby resettlement--may have disrupted Centralia's lives but that, ultimately, lives and livelihoods were not directly lost to the fire, it's hard to muster much sympathy, not when there have been so many true environmental tragedies, coupled with governmental non-response, since 1983. By comparison, Centralia's sad story just doesn't compare. "Slow Burn" is an example of photojournalism whose time has come--and gone.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005. He currently reviews books for U.S.A. Today.

(Book publishers, authors and photography galleries/dealers may send review copies to us at: I Photo Central, 258 Inverness Circle, Chalfont, PA 18914. We do not guarantee that we will review all books or catalogues that we receive. Books must be aimed at photography collecting, not how-to books for photographers.)