At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, photographer Victoria Will decided to put down her digital camera and use a century-old technique to shoot the stars. The result is celebrity portraits unlike any other you have ever seen before.
We all know the feeling of being stuck in a rut. So what do you do as a portrait photographer when you need to reignite your creative spark?
One thing you can do is switch tools. Replace the pen with a brush, and you will probably be surprised by what you end up putting on the canvas.
Celebrity photographer Victoria Will’s recent shoot at the Sundance Film Festival is a good example. Victoria had been shooting the stars at the festival for three years in a row when she started to feel as if she was reinventing the wheel every time. So for her fourth year, she replaced her DSLR with an old Graflex Super D camera and the TIFFs and JPGs with beautiful, aluminum tintypes.
The switch did not make things easier for Victoria, quite the opposite. But the demanding process resulted in some of the most inspired and highly praised portraits from that year’s festival.
“What I love about the process is how raw it is,” says Victoria. “We live in an age of glossy magazines and overly retouched skin. But there is no lying with tintypes. You can’t get rid of a few wrinkles in Photoshop.”
For her fifth year at Sundance, Victoria decided to take her tintype photography one step further. Equipped with four Pro-8 studio packs, two ProTwin Heads, a Beauty Dish and a Softbox RFi 4’ Octa, Victoria brought the century-old tintype technique into the 21st century.
“The first year I shot tintypes was a great success,” says Victoria. “But I also learned a lot during the process. So when this year’s festival came up, I knew there was room for improvement.
“For this year’s festival, I asked the Penumbra Foundation to help me out. These guys, who I affectionately refer to as the mad scientists, are tintype experts.
“I asked them for help for two reasons. First of all, I was eight months pregnant, so I obviously couldn’t stick my hands into lethal mixtures. Secondly, having them there taking care of the chemistry, allowed me to fully focus on the portraiture, on the lighting and on the interaction with the subject.”
Making a tintype is hard. The chemicals can be deadly, the process is extremely time sensitive, and the tiniest variation in exposure can have a huge effect on the final outcome.
Nevertheless, we asked Victoria to guide us through the process as if we did not know the first thing about it (which in all honesty we did not).
“First of all, start with a piece of metal. You can use tin, of course. That’s why they’re referred to as a tintype. But you can use any metal, really, like iron or aluminum, which is what I did at Sundance.
“You coat the aluminum in a mixture called Collodion. Collodion has ether and all sorts of nasty stuff in it, but it makes the silver nitrate stick to it. So when you place the plate with the Collodion in a silver nitrate bath and take it out again, the plate becomes light sensitive.
“Then, while the plate remains wet you have to expose it and then develop it. Time is of the greatest essence and weather is always a factor. For example, humid conditions will give you more time than dry arid climates. In total, you have roughly seven to eight minutes to complete the entire process. There is no room for mistakes.
“So as soon you get your shot, you take out the plate and put it into the developer. Then you stop the development with a water bath, and after that you put the plate in the fixer. That’s it. You got your plate. Hopefully…
“The process reminds me of the things I learned in the darkroom when doing silver gelatin prints. The main difference is, of course, that you’re actually making the entire piece of film from the beginning.
“You also have to remember that the so-called film you’re creating has ISO zero to one. So you obviously need huge amounts of light to get the correct exposure.”
More about that to come…
Back in the day, the huge amounts of light that were necessary to expose a tintype correctly were achieved using extremely long exposures – often several minutes or more (which is why the men and women you see in old tintypes never smile and look kind of stiff.)
Not afraid to experiment, Victoria took a different approach. Using two Profoto ProTwin Heads and four Profoto Pro-8 packs, she was able to shorten the needed exposure time from several minutes to a fraction of a second.
For those of you who do not know, ProTwin Head is a super powerful flash head with not one but two cords. The two cords can be connected to one flash pack each, practically doubling the amount of power you have at your disposal. In Victoria’s case, the ProTwin Heads were connected to two Pro-8 packs with 2400Ws each. By combining their power, she got 4800Ws of power in each of the two heads. That is 9600Ws of light in each shot! So if you ever wondered why Alexander Skarsgård and Adrian Grenier seemed to get blinded by the light in the video, now you know.
“I have to use an incredible amount of light,” says Victoria. “It’s somewhat daunting, actually. I think you can get away with a little bit less and develop the plate a while longer, but then you run into other types of consequences. So I think this is the best way to do it.”
The outcome justifies Victoria’s belief. Over the course of five busy days at Sundance, she and her team got no less than 175 tintype plates. Needless to say, that is an insane number for this meticulous, time consuming process.
“It’s such a fast pace but it’s very rewarding,” Victoria says. “Definitely high-risk, high-reward.”