We talked to photographer/veteran Ed Drew about capturing old-school photos in a war zone.
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There’s something haunting about old photographs—particularly portraits. It’s a visceral reaction, a brief feeling of a connection to the past. But it’s not just the eerie, thousand-yard stare of a Confederate soldier, or the physical decay of an old daguerreotype that gives these images their unique appeal. Sometimes it’s the technology itself.
Tintype photography is a perfect example. The style was invented in the mid–19th century as a simpler alternative to the daguerrotype. Since the photos were exposed directly onto a thin sheet of iron—sort of like an early Polaroid—the finished product could be delivered to customers in a matter of minutes. That made it a favorite of both studio and street photographers in the 1860s and 1870s.
But the tintype's heyday also coincided with the Civil War, where battlefield photographers put tintype cameras to use recording some of America's most iconic wartime images.
Now, an artist named Ed Drew is reviving the old tech and applying it to familiar subjects: soldiers. In fact, Drew’s images from Helmand Province, Afghanistan, are believed to be the first tintype photographs created in a combat zone since the Civil War.
Fittingly, Drew is himself a veteran, having served as a jet engine mechanic for six years before joining the Air National Guard as a helicopter aerial gunner in 2008. In 2013, Drew was deployed to Afghanistan, where he began capturing tintype photographs of fellow soldiers between combat missions.
Currently, Drew is attending the San Francisco Art Institute, and still serves as a defensive heavy weapons and tactics specialist for the California Air National Guard. We had a chance to sit down with Drew to ask him a few questions about his process.
What got you into tintype photography?
I had seen it in a video for National Geographic about a photographer named Robb Kendrick. That was about eight or nine years ago, and I was living in Japan at the time, but I just put it on the back burner as something I wanted to do. Fast-forward to when I’m in art school. I met one of the grad students who happened to be a tintype photographer as well, and I learned it from him.
What sort of reactions did you get from friends and superiors?
You have to understand that, we were really kind of stuck in the moment as far as being in the war. They knew I was in art school, and they liked the images. But none of them, including myself, ever thought it would become this big. When I was taking the photographs I was more concentrated on the job and making something that the guys could show their families.
How has military service influenced your artistic sensibility?
Creatively, I can’t say it’s influenced me directly, but because of the world I exist in within the military I’m able to tap into things that people don’t normally see, and as an artist I can translate that in a way so the average civilian can understand how we operate.
The military is who I am. I never meant to make any statement about the military or the war in my work. My focus was purely on the individuals who I photographed. To everyone else they’re the military, but to me they’re friends, they’re coworkers. I really wanted to show people an image of a person in uniform rather than just a uniform.
What is your process for shooting tintype?
It’s a multi-step process. First step is you have a metal plate—these days it’s aluminum coated with a black varnish—and you pour on collodion, which can be a film or your emulsion. That’s what’s going to capture the actual silver crystals that will make the latent image.
So you pour the collodion on, it gets a little dry and it becomes a gel. You put it in a silver nitrate bath for about five minutes. Silver nitrate infuses into the collodion and a chemical process converts the silver nitrate into silver chloride, and the silver chloride is what captures the image.
You take it out of the bath under black light conditions, put it into a holder that slides into the back of the camera. You expose your image, close it back up, bring it back into darkroom conditions. You develop it right then and there, but it’s got to stay wet the whole time—it can’t ever dry up or else it won’t work.
How long does it take?
The developer usually takes about 30 seconds. You start seeing the highlights come out—that’s when you stop it—and all you have to do to stop the development is pour regular water on it. Once the water is washed off completely, then you can expose it to light. Under light you can pour on your fixer.
There’s two types of fixer people typically use: There’s potassium cyanide, which is obviously extremely toxic, but it’s diluted so it can’t actually kill you—or sodium thiosulfate, or “hypo.” Hypo is okay because it’s not toxic, but it doesn’t clear out as quickly, so it can create problems and mess up the image.
That’s why a lot of the old-timers used potassium cyanide, because it was really easy to get rid of. All you had to do was pour water on it.
Is it difficult to find the necessary equipment and ingredients?
There are a lot of places out there these days that have the ingredients. Potassium iodide, bromide, silver nitrate—these are typical chemicals you can procure off any chemical company. Or you could go through photographic supply places. It’s not very hard, but that’s also the reason why I like tintype. Film is really kind of dying out, and a lot of companies like Polaroid and Kodak have stopped making film. But with tintype the chemicals are there and they’re always going to be there.
What about in a place like Afghanistan?
In Afghanistan they were impossible to get. It required me to have cleaner conditions there, so I rounded up all these chemicals at home and brought them over in bottles.
Any future plans?
I’ve been working with at-risk youth and African-American kids here in San Francisco and producing tintypes of them. The best way to describe this is as a survey of people of color in America. I’m trying to use tintype as a vehicle to teach about the past and force people to think about the history of the United States. Tintypes were famous and used mostly during the Civil War, so the connection alludes to slavery and other aspects of the American past.