ATLANTA — As he sat in yet another airport waiting to board a plane, Josiah Morgan powered up his laptop to see what the universe held about lenses.
One click led to another and another until finally he happened upon a history of optics and wet plate collodion, a photographic process once practiced in the late 1800s.
At 32, Morgan had spent most of his life working in the film and television industry, shooting promos for cable TV operations such as the HGTV and DIY networks. But in all that time, he’d never heard of tintype photography.
Sitting there in the airport, Morgan said he “was absolutely taken with the beauty of the images and the timeless nature of the work.”
In fact, Morgan wasn’t just taken by the almost ancient technique, he saw in the images the chance to slow it down and travel less after the birth of his daughter.
Back home, he bought a large-format view camera and began shooting photographs on pieces of aluminum. The unique character was beyond anything he’d ever seen.
And so what started as a research project soon turned into Handcrafted Images by Josiah Morgan, a one-man photography business in the family’s Peachtree Corners, Ga., garage.
The first-time dad had landed in the midst of a revival that has been underway for at least the past decade, said Jill Enfield, a New York City-based fine arts photographer.
Not only have workshops on tintype been popping up, so too have studios such as Morgan’s, said Enfield, the author of “Jill Enfield’s Guide to Photographic Alternative Processes: Popular Historical and Contemporary Techniques.”
“In addition,” she said, “there are about four groups on Facebook with a mix of people from all over the world.”
Enfield said the revival is a backlash from digital.
“Once we got inundated with digital images, and darkrooms in schools have dwindled, people wanted to go back to hands-on image-making,” she said. “This includes all alternative processes (historical techniques), as well as printmaking. Being able to make your own emulsion on glass, aluminum or paper, with any technique, allows you to ‘cross over’ into other mediums such as printmaking, ceramic and bookmaking. These can all be combined to make wonderful tactile art.”
Ron Anderson, a film and video colorist from Alpharetta, Ga., who’d worked with Morgan, was among his first clients.
Anderson said when he heard Morgan had opened a studio using this Old World technique, he was fascinated. He scheduled a photo shoot, and the result, he said, was art.
“The detail was incredibly sharp,” Anderson said. “You see every little hair on your head, every pore in your skin. I loved it so much I replaced both my Facebook and LinkedIn photo with it.”
Morgan moved to metro Atlanta with his wife, Julie, two years ago for the opportunities they believed the region offered.
When the couple found out they were expecting late last year, their priorities shifted. They wanted to change their lifestyle and restructure their growing family. They brainstormed about what they could do as a team to stay home.
At the beginning of the year, they decided they’d need to start a family business, but they still didn’t know what to pursue. In April, Julie Morgan quit her job as a special education teacher, and in May, a month after their daughter, Susanna, was born, Josiah Morgan made his first tintypes.
“Instead of traveling all the time, I wanted to be a steady part of my daughter’s life, something that would require real changes,” he said. “Starting a small family business like this is a big step with a lot of uncertainty, but we’re doing what we think is best for our daughter and family, and living by faith.”
Like all small startups, the couple is doing a lot with little. Family, friends and neighbors have all chipped in, helping convert their basement garage into a darkroom, wood shop and studio.
In August, the couple opened the tintype portrait studio.
“Using this process, I’ve gone beyond shooting on film to handcrafting film out of metal,” Morgan said. “Since I made my first successful plate, I’ve just been totally obsessed with this.”
Morgan said the wet plate collodion process involves pouring collodion onto a plate of thin iron or glass, then exposing and developing that plate while it’s still wet. This process, invented in 1848 by Frederick Scott Archer and made popular during the Civil War, was the primary photographic method from the early 1850s until the late 1880s. It replaced paper negatives/Calotypes and Daguerreotypes.
After stumbling upon its history, Morgan decided he wanted to use the same technique. Because each photograph is individually handcrafted, no two tintypes are exactly alike. And just like the original tintypes, these photographs will last for generations.
“When you look at a tintype shot in 1850 and one shot today, they are just almost identical, which is evidence of its longevity,” Morgan said. “In our digital, consumable, throw-it-away lifestyle, creating images that will last has instant value because it’s going to be around, it becomes almost an instant heirloom, something that can be passed around. These new tintypes should also last at least 150 years.”