In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, Sheena Dorton, photographer and owner of Ruby Bellows Tintype, spoke with arts and culture editor Marcheta Fornoff ahead of leading a tintype session as part of Fort Worth Foto Fest on May 15.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.
Fornoff: How long have you been practicing tintype photography?
Dorton: I’ve been practicing it for a little over four years now. I started back in August of 2018, and I did my first pop-up come December of 2018 at Shipping & Receiving or what’s now Distribution Bar, inside of an old elevator. I had these rinky-dink lights I was using, and I was capturing portraits on 5x7s and 4x5s of people who were just interested in what I was doing. I brought my darkroom with me, I set up and was showing people my process.
Fornoff: Talk to me about tintype photography and what got you into it in the first place.
Dorton: The history of tintype photography was discovered in, I think, (the) 1850s. And it’s just kind of amazing that someone figured out what chemicals make certain things light-sensitive, and then they played around with it enough to where they’re like, “OK, I can produce a photograph on a specific material.” And that material just happened to be metal or back then it was tin. I use modern aluminum.
But I started tintype mainly because I was just fascinated by the result of the image that you get. It’s not like normal photography because it picks up the orthochromatic spectrum and the U.V. spectrum. And what that means is that there are certain colors that get picked up differently, like reds turn to black, blues look almost white, and everything in between just has its own respective hue in the value chart of like black and white.
When I was 15 years old, I was helping my great grandmother move some boxes around in her house that she was moving into. I knocked over this one box, which had a lot of post-mortem photographs in it, and there were a few tintypes. I didn’t know what it was at the time. I picked it up and I’m like, OK, these are my dead relatives, as macabre as it is, I was fascinated by that, and I did some research. I figured out this is an actual tintype. It lasted forever. The varnish makes this the most stable photographic medium because it just secures the image onto the plate, so it does not disintegrate over time.
Anyway, about 15 years later, I decided to go ahead and just jump headfirst into this because there was nobody in Fort Worth that was doing this process. I also decided to go ahead and get my own portrait taken by another tintype photographer just to see what it was about, because I wanted to actually witness this firsthand as the person on the other side, as the subject.
After that, this was early in 2018, like March, I decided, why am I not doing this? Why am I not capturing people in this photographic medium that is so different from everything that is out there today? Why doesn’t Fort Worth have someone like this? So I decided to go ahead and fill that spot.
Fornoff: How do you get started in something like this? Because this is not exactly the most portable camera.
Dorton: Well, I went into it head first, knowing that there are going to be a lot of technical issues because 90% of tintype photography is just technical issues. There’s a lot of things that can go wrong with your darkroom and chemistry, but I decided to go ahead.
I initially had a smaller set up. I threw in my savings. I found a camera from South Carolina, from a guy who restores them for museums. It’s a 5×7 camera, which was also used for the photographs for “1883.” If you’ve seen the intro, I assisted with that shoot.
I started out small with just little bitty lights, about 400 watts I think, versus the lights I use now, which total about 10,000 watts. But yeah, I had these little lights that would basically be right up against you in order for me to get a good image.
The best way for me to describe getting into this is that I just had to scrap and save and figure out what I can do with the bare minimum. That was, of course, a learning curve on its own because this process is not cheap, sadly, which I thought it was going to be — turns out it’s a little bit more expensive.
Then again, I did bargain hard. I found a lot of my equipment second-hand except for the actual lights themselves. If someone wants to get into it, just know that you’re going to have to really dig and get to know people in the wet plate community and get on photography forums and various websites to source everything. But I’ve made friends with a lot of photographers that do this across the country.
Fornoff: You were talking about having to do pop-up sessions and you have this camera … I have no idea how much it weighs, but it’s set up on a tripod that’s at least like 5’6” and you have your tin plates that you’re lugging around…
Dorton: All my darkroom equipment, my chemistry, the camera itself. It’s not honestly that heavy. It is big and awkward, though, but you get used to it when you’re lugging it around.
And of course, the lights, I think, are my most you know, those are like my precious things, my lights and my lens.
I purchased this camera from an eBay shop based in Seattle and I think it’s got the patent stamp for 1905 or 1904 on it, so it was made shortly after that. The tripod itself was from the early 1900s, actually. But the lens itself is from 1863. I was like, “Oh my gosh, this lens was used when Abraham Lincoln was alive.” Tintype photography that was discovered around that time, it’s just ideal. I’ve produced some really beautiful and amazing and intriguing portraits with it.
Fornoff: You talked about being a scientist.
Dorton: It’s kind of an interesting learning curve with this. A lot of people, when they are interested in tintype, they look for a person who will teach them or classes. I have never taken a photography class in my life. I am entirely self-taught, which, you know, I kind of wish I would have taken a photography class because there were a lot of mistakes I made in the beginning. But then again, I have plenty of knowledge now. Without those mistakes, I wouldn’t be where I am today, so I just had to figure out what works and what doesn’t work.
People have reached out to me to see if I wanted to have a private class or some sort of one-on-one type session where I can teach them. At some point, I want to do that.
Right now, happening May 15, I partnered with Fort Worth Foto Fest and I’m going to be doing a workshop demonstration on what tintype is. I’m going to briefly explain it, talk about what I did on “1883,” shoot tintypes showing people the process and have people look into my darkroom so they can actually see what’s going on.
Fornoff: Mmhmm. How did the “1883” collaboration come to fruition?
Dorton: That happened really, really fast. The lead photographer, she did the “Yellowstone” tintypes originally. When she did those back in 2018, I reached out to her on Instagram and we became friends.
Anyway, come 2021 in October she sends me a message, like, “Hey, I’m going to be in Fort Worth for a Tintype shoot. Would you want to help? Would you want to assist me on that?” And I was like, “Oh, yeah. Absolutely.” I didn’t know exactly what it was for just yet. She brought in a few other tintype photographers from across the country and Texas that traveled; there were six of us total. We had a Zoom meeting and she’s like, “Oh yeah, this is for Paramount’s “1883” (with) Sam Elliott, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Eric Nelsen. All those people are going to be there and we’re going to be photographing the cast of this new series.” And I was like, “Oh, this is really cool.”
This happened so fast. I got a message from her and then two weeks later we’re doing the shoot. We were just scrambling, trying to find glass because most of them were ambrotypes, it’s like a tintype. Same process, it’s just on glass.
My job on set was sensitizing plates. I take the collodion emulsion, I pour it on to the glass or tin, whichever one I’m working with at the time, and I roll it around, make sure it coats it evenly. Then I take it and put it in a silver nitrate tank which sensitizes it, and I leave it in there for 2 to 3 minutes. I take it out, put it in a plate holder, and then I run that up to the photographer who’s going to be taking the photograph. I kept doing that over and over and over again. I think that day we shot well over 100 of them.
We didn’t know that they were going to be used for the show opener, because that was decided later on. This was supposed to originally be like a little side project, you know, something cool for advertising and marketing. The way they looked in front of you, the tintypes themselves, they decided this is going to be the show opener.
Fornoff: Cool. With your Fort Worth Foto Fest workshop, what do you hope to get out of that?
Dorton: I think my whole goal is to just educate people as much as I can on it. I can only do so much in three hours, plus I’ll be shooting plates during that time, but I want to try to inform people about this process. I love bringing this old style of photography back. This process, it’s not common. I just want people to see it in person how amazing this is, and there is a lot of chemistry and science behind it. I want them to just take it all in.
Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.