Tintype Photography: Feedback on Tintype Business Article

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Interested in a tintype photography business? Here is some feedback from a MOTHER reader and Dan Ogden, author of a MOTHER article on tinype businesses.

That was a fine article (“A 19th Century Business You Can Start Today“, by Daniel Ogden) in MOTHER NO. March/April 1975 on tintype photography, but it’s not the whole story by any means. Tintype was only one of the early photographic processes, and in my mind not the most important one at that.

The very first pictures were daguerreotypes, which were made with silver (or silver-coated) plates. They had a fine metallic appearance and were quite beautiful. The Spiratone Company — which advertises in all the camera magazines — sells a photo paper which recreates this effect nicely.

Then too, don’t forget that Matthew Brady photographed the Civil War on negatives made of glass plates and printed his exposures on coated paper. You can still purchase this “Studio Paper” from Kodak and make prints on it with the sun’s light. (You can also buy glass plates from Kodak. Ask your photo dealer, and he’ll special order them for you.)

As for tintypes themselves, good equipment is now being sold not only by Elbinger and Sun but by Porter’s Camera Store of Cedar Rapids, Iowa (their ads are in most of the photo mags).

Now that most studios have converted to color roll film, there’s an abundance of used wooden bellows-type cameras available for under $100 — complete with lens — that are well-suited to old-time photographic work. (If the camera has been painted gray or white, the paint may be stripped off to reveal the fine wood underneath.)

Other fans of “old time” photography have found themselves a used Mandel street photographer’s camera and tinkered with it until they’ve gotten it to work again.

Homemade black and white postcards offer yet another novel way to make extra money. (For nostalgia effect, many people hand-color these as well.) Spiratone sells all the materials you’d need for this purpose.

The potential of all these different “antique” photo processes is very good because people are simply tiring of mass production portraiture.

One largely overlooked related activity which has many possibilities for profit and enjoyment that MOTHER’s readers might explore is the restoration of old cameras, and camera repair in general. This work can (I believe) be learned by almost anyone. My own camera repair course is advertised in MOTHER and in several large photography magazines.

Edward H. Romney
RD 1
Ellenboro, N.C. 28040

Thank you very much, Mr. Romney, for taking the time to write. Readers may be interested to learn that Edward H. Romney is the author of the text, Trade Secrets of Camera Repair, edits The New Pictorialist (now in its eighth year), and writes a regular column for Shutterbug, a camera swappers’ monthly.–MOTHER.

A lot has happened to our little tintype business since last March when MOTHER first told folks about this unique 19th-century business.

Hundreds of MOTHER’s readers have contacted us about tintypes and nearly 100 have actually decided to give the business a try. Some of these doers have brought authentic tintypes to folks in Chattanooga, Cripple Creek, Chicago, Detroit, Seattle, New Orleans, and dozens of other big–and small–cities throughout the country. Beginning May 1, we will be supplying the Smithsonian Institution with plates and equipment for a studio in the Arts and Industries building. At present, the building is being completely remodeled for the Bicentennial and will present a theme based on the 1876 Centennial — the period in which tintype photography reached the zenith of its popularity. The Smithsonian stamp of approval ought to help all those who use our tintype plates, in terms of publicity and goodwill.

Many of the people who’ve gone into the tintype business have taken to the road. Just like the itinerant photographers of the last century, they carry their camera and darkroom to the people, forever moving from one place to the next. One couple is working their way across the country this spring and summer. Most operate from a central home base and travel to nearby arts and crafts festivals, antique shows, fairs, conventions, etc.

Some traveling tintypists dream of the day when they’ll be able to operate their own studios, and a few have already realized that dream. In Chattanooga, Tennessee you’ll find a place that was once the largest (next to Atlanta) railhead in the South: Terminal Station. Like most train stations today, Terminal Station sees only a few Amtraks come through every week . . . but unlike most train stations today, it is not merely a deserted shadow of its former self. Terminal Station is completely restored, is the home of many shopping and entertainment businesses, and serves as a hotel where guests sleep in old Pullmans parked on the original “ion rails.

In the middle of all this is a tintype studio. Originally, it was felt that Chattanooga might only provide traffic in the summer months. However, it turns out that scads of people driving to Florida from the Midwest have to pass through Chattanooga on the way and a good number find their way to Terminal Station and Pullman Tintype.

Another tintypist used the business as a ticket to the Rockies. This man quit his accounting job in the East and decided to head for Jackson Hole, Wyoming, at the foot of the Grand Tetons. A couple of thousand tintypes later, the man and his wife found themselves at the end of the summer (known as the “dude season” to locals) with no more tourists until the ski resort opened. So they spend the off-season on a ranch — warm, cabin and jeep included — as caretakers, and work a ski resort studio part time for spending money.

It would take a whole issue of MOTHER to tell the individual stories of all our tintypist friends. The one thing they have in common, though, is this: Each person who’s gotten into this business has taken the time to find a niche, a place where the tintype is needed.

But don’t get the idea that all the good places for a tintype studio have been taken. There’s lots more room on this continent (although, of course, we wouldn’t like to see tintypists running into each other) where this business can work. You probably know of a couple right now. If you do, go there and ask around, see how other people in business (gift shops, leather goods stores, or what have you) are doing. In other words, do some homework before you decide that the spot you have in mind is The Perfect Place for a tintype studio.

If you’ve got a location — or just want to hit the road — drop us a line. We’ll be glad to send you a complete catalogue showing all the things you’ll need to start your own tintype business.

Dan Ogden
Elbinger & Sun
1380 Haslett Road
Haslett, Mich. 48840