Fruita photographer offers delightfully quirky gift to cherish for generationsOct 31, 2023 12:35PM ● By Heidi Pool
Remember in the early ’70s when your mom bought a Polaroid Colorpack II instant camera, and you and your family members would huddle around her to watch the picture “bloom” in her outstretched hand? Back then, you may have thought instant photography was a newfangled thing. But a similar process was actually patented in the U.S. more than 100 years prior.
First called “melainotype,” this style of photography, in which a photographic image is produced onto a thin sheet of metal, eventually came to be known as “tintype,” and it remained in vogue until the early 20th century.
In the Grand Valley, tintype photography is enjoying a comeback thanks to Vanessa (pronounced Vuh-nees-uh) Ford, the 55-year-old owner of Westslope Tintypes, who creates heirloom portraits with a cool retro vibe of people, animals, objects and oftentimes a combination of all three. And thanks to a coating of varnish (the final step in the process), these photographs will last some 200 years.
Tucked away in a cozy corner of the Fruita Area Recreation Marketplace (FARM) at 160 S. Park Ave., Ford’s studio is both inviting and intimate. One wall boasts a collection of classic cameras, including a venerable Kodak Brownie she still uses occasionally.
Ford moved to Fruita 9 years ago and owned a breakfast food trailer. When she decided to stop doing that, she fell back into her love of black-and-white analog photography.
“Tintype is sort of the ultimate black and white photographic process,” said Ford. “I’ve always loved history and old things, my mother would say, so I wanted to give this process a try.”
Although Ford says she can shoot a tintype photo with almost any camera, her pride and joy is a medium-format model from 1910 that she pairs with a more modern lens. This hefty, tripod-mounted beauty requires the use of a “dark cloth” to shroud the rear of the camera while the image is being shot, lending an old-timey feel to the photography session.
Ford employs the “wet plate” method of tintype photography, which requires some chemistry skills in addition to portrait artistry. Although she purchases pre-made collodion (a liquid used to coat the plate and sensitize it to light), she concocts her own varnish with a mixture of tree sap, alcohol and lavender oil.
“Wet plate is definitely more involved and hands-on than dry plate, which is almost like shooting regular film,” she explained. “But with wet plate, you see the results in about 20 seconds. If you’re dissatisfied, you simply wipe off the plate, let it dry, clean it and start over.”
PATIENCE & PROPS
Photographic sessions last approximately 30 minutes, with the setup taking up more time than the actual developing process. While it’s fun to dress in fashions from a bygone era, it’s not required. Ford has a marvelous assortment of hats at the ready, and a neighbor artisan at the FARM has an extensive array of vintage clothing that clients are welcome to borrow for their sitting.
If you choose to wear your own clothes, you’ll want to avoid solid white or light blue, which Ford says will result in an unnaturally dark skin tone. You’ll also want to avoid wearing glasses with a UV coating, as they’ll look like sunglasses in the photo. And, because this photographic method produces a direct positive image, be aware that any lettering on your clothing will appear backwards.
For in-studio portraiture, Ford says as many people, animals and objects that can fit on her four-by-three-foot platform are welcome to participate in the process.
“If it’ll fit on the platform, bring it in,” she said.
One of her more memorable shoots was a group of four adults who came dressed like farmers, and brought a pitchfork and rifle for props. They also carried in two little dogs and one supersized cat.
The walls in Ford’s studio extend only three quarters of the way to the ceiling, and “I was really worried the cat would bolt and jump over the wall, but fortunately it didn’t.”
Another memorable shoot was a portrait Ford calls “Girl with Chicken,” featuring her life partner, Megan Dunegan, and one of their pet chickens.
“I used a fairly slow lens, and Megan had to sit still with a chicken [that wanted to be anywhere else but there] for about 12 excruciating seconds,” said Ford.
The extra effort required for these two shoots paid off handsomely: both resulted in stunning portraits that perfectly capture the quaint nature of tintype photography.
QUIRKY & MEMORABLE
Ford’s sessions aren’t limited to in-studio portraiture. She also goes out on location.
The day after my visit she had an appointment scheduled at a local farm to photograph a horse. This portability factor accounts for the popularity of tintype photography during the Civil War, and later at outdoor fairs and carnivals.
Today, a tintype portrait is a one-of-a-kind way to preserve a moment in time in a manner that’s reminiscent of the past. It’s also a novel and meaningful entertainment element for parties, reunions and other gatherings.
And if you have an old photo or negative that needs restoration, Ford can do that too. She even offers pick-up and drop-off service to make it extra convenient.
For more information, and to schedule your tintype photo shoot, contact Ford at Westslope Tintypes: 970-639-1509 or westslopetintypes.com.