From The Curator’s Desk – Tintype Conservation

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Freedom Center Voices
January 20, 2023

From the Curator’s Desk – Tintype Conservation

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center currently has three tintypes and one carte-de-visite (CDV) from its museum collection on display in the FotoFocus Biennial special exhibition ‘Free as they want to be’: Artists Committed to Memory co-curated by Deborah Willis, Ph.D. and Cheryl Finley, Ph.D.  

‘Free as they want to be’: Artists Committed to Memory is open September 30, 2022 through March 5, 2023.  For more information on admission, hours, and location visit freedomcenter.org.

 


As I reviewed images of the other pieces that would be included in this exhibition, I looked at the Freedom Center’s collection of historical photographs and selected four that depict images of Black women reclining, embracing, and posing in a photography studio.  These photographs from the 1890s are empowering, beautiful, and fragile.  There is a lot of literature on the history of photography and its impact, but CDV’s in particular were more affordable and more accessible. More people could participate in the experience of being photographed or sitting for a photograph but what I like about the pieces we have displayed in the Fotofocus “Free as they Want to Be” exhibition is they fit the theme.

These 19th century images capture the social life, beauty, and style of Black women during this period, and the co-curators agreed.  Each woman is dressed up, their hair is styled, they’re being photographed in a studio and looking at the camera. Grandma Ball is in a very distinguished, and regal pose, in a decorative chair. I think seeing more images like this is really empowering because it takes the focus off some of the stereotypical images you might find.  These photos do exist; Black women were being photographed too.

What is a Carte-de-Visite?

A Carte-de-Visite, similar to a calling card, is a closely trimmed portrait photograph presented when visiting that bears the name and sometimes address of the visitor.

Why are early photographs so fragile? 

Tintypes are especially vulnerable to deterioration as light and air exposure impacts the metal.  These tintypes are also dented and scratched on the surface and the corners are clipped.  This most likely occurred when they were removed from their original, decorative case or photo album.  Adhesive residue was also on the backs of the photographs.

Months before the opening of the show, I contacted an art conservator to assess the condition of these tintypes before they could be displayed.  The assessment revealed that the solution the photographer applied to the surface of the photo was chipping around the corners and needed to be treated to prevent further delamination, chipping, and eventual loss of the image.

About the Process of Tintypes

The collodion process is an early photographic process which requires the photographic material to be coated, sensitized, exposed, and developed within the span of about fifteen minutes.

Collodion is a sticky, transparent substance that when soaked in a solution of silver nitrate, is ideal for coating stable surfaces such as glass or metal. That plate is then exposed and developed.

Tintypes were the cheaper variations of the ambrotype. Instead of being printed on glass, the collodion emulsion was coated on thin iron sheets. However, this process did not produce a negative so you could not make copies of the image. Tintypes were particularly popular with Civil War soldiers, immigrants, and working people because they were durable, easy to make, and inexpensive compared to other photographic equipment at the time.

How are tintypes protected? 

At the height of tintypes, they were more durable than any other photographic process so they could be sent through the mail, carried in pockets, or mounted in albums. Decorative cases, paper sleeves, and photo albums not only provided a beautiful aesthetic for the tintype photograph, but they also protected them from dirt, moisture, air, and fingerprints.

As museum artifacts, early photographs must be housed using archival materials and kept in secure, climate-controlled storage.

When viewed closely, the texture of the impairment is evident.

Tintype of three unidentified Black women, circa 1890.  National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Collections.  Images courtesy of Strange Stock Art Conservation

Tintype of three unidentified African American women, circa 1890.

National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Collections.
Images courtesy of Strange Stock Art Conservation.

Tintype of three unidentified Black women, circa 1890.  National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Collections.  Images courtesy of Strange Stock Art Conservation

For the tintype of the reclining woman, there is a black blemish in the center right of the image.  After a discussion with the art conservator, we determined it was best to leave the blemish.  Removal of the blemish would cause more damage to the image (including loss of details in the area around the blemish).

Tintype of three unidentified Black women, circa 1890.  National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Collections.  Images courtesy of Strange Stock Art Conservation

Reclining African American Woman, circa 1890.

National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Collections.
Images courtesy of Strange Stock Art Conservation.

Reclining African American Woman, circa 1890.  National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Collections.  Images courtesy of Strange Stock Art Conservation

The carte-de-visite (CDV) was also treated.  In this case, the masking tape along the back of the CDV was removed to reveal the label with an ornate border which reads:

J.P. Ball’s
Photographic Institute,
30 W. Fourth St.
Cincinnati, OHIO.

Removal of masking tape from back of Grandma Ball CDV.  J.P. Ball’s Photographic Institute. Grandma Ball, circa 1870. National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Collections. Image courtesy of Strange Stock Art Conservation.

Grandma Ball, circa 1870. J.P. Ball's Photographic Institute. Carte-de-visite.

Images courtesy of Strange Stock Art Conservation.

Removal of masking tape from back of Grandma Ball CDV.  J.P. Ball’s Photographic Institute. Grandma Ball, circa 1870. National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Collections. Image courtesy of Strange Stock Art Conservation.

James Presley "J.P." Ball, Sr. was a prominent African American photographer, abolitionist, and businessman who opened a studio in 1849 in Cincinnati, Ohio. His work included subjects like P.T. Barnum, Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, Ulysses S. Grant, and Frederick Douglass.

Learn more about J.P. Ball

Further research is needed to identify the Black women in the tintype photos.  Unfortunately, when the tintypes were removed from their decorative cases any names that may have been written on the cases were lost. With names or identifiable information, more research can be done to reveal the women’s lives.

Furthermore, while we could make an educated guess on which photographic studio produced the tintypes, no photographer is credited, named, or identified on the tintypes.  But, thanks to conservation treatment–scholars, students, and others have more opportunities for this research.

Stephanie M. Lampkin, Ph.D. is the Curator at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. She earned her PhD in History and museum studies certificate from the University of Delaware.  Dr. Lampkin’s research explores the intersection between freedom seekers and indigenous populations in the early South and the southern routes to freedom.

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