A Richmond photographer is capturing the present with photographic processes of the past

Photo by Erin Edgerton

Photo by Erin Edgerton

Emily White’s green metal desk is covered in gold picture frames, a baby blue vintage Coronet typewriter and tintype portraits.

“Craigslist,” she said of the desk. “I will say it’s really heavy. It’s also fireproof so all of my precious things are in my desk.”

White is a Richmond area tintype photographer with a studio nestled in Manchester. She’s from the rural town of Bremo Bluff, Virginia, an hour-and-a-half upstream on the James River. She studied sociology at Middlebury College in Vermont and lived in Charlottesville for a year before landing in Richmond.

White started exploring tintype photography in 2013 while planning for an artist residency. She wanted to find the best photography method to fit her environment and came across tintype.

“The way I simplify tintype for people is that it’s the polaroid of the 19th century,” White said.

Photo by Erin Edgerton

Tintype uses a process called wet plate collodion. It’s one of the first photographic processes to use wet chemistry to create a direct exposure onto a sheet of metal. The process takes about five minutes from start to finish, not including framing the subjects and focusing the camera.

White describes herself as an intentionally slow-working person who is also easily excited and eager to see the end result of her projects. She likes that the tintype process is something that forces her to take her time.

“It’s almost ritualistic in the steps of it,” she said. “I love having my hand in every step of the process. I do everything from mixing the chemicals, to exposing the image, to setting the image up.”

White values the fact that tintype portraits allow for greater collaboration between her and her subjects. Portrait photography is a somewhat intimate process and being a woman in the field allows White to take photos that others can’t, she says.

“I was thinking about the portraits I take and how I don’t think a man could take them,” White said. “I think there’s an obvious female eye behind them. I don’t know why, but that was yesterday’s driving-in-the-car thought.”

Beside her desk stands what White calls her “Frankencamera.” It’s a camera she pieced together with a lens from 1901 and parts from two other cameras. While she enjoys digital cameras for things like event photography, she takes issue with the idea that owning a digital camera means you have to upgrade constantly.  

“There’s this interesting idea — specifically in photography — where a lot of people don’t acknowledge the craft behind it,” she said. “They think if you have the best equipment, you’ll take the best photos and I think that’s completely wrong.”

White intends to continue tintype portraits for as long as it will sustain her. She plans on embarking on a cross-country trip in the spring, photographing women using tintypes. White also wants to do more artist residencies photographing subjects in their own personal spaces.

In the social media age, many are guilty of taking hundreds of photos a day and leaving them on phones or laptops. White feels since each tintype image is the only one of its kind, the photographer has already decided it’s a special photo.

“These are tangible photos that intentionally are not supposed to live on a screen,” she said. “This format really encourages returning to the idea of a photo being something special.”

Photo by Erin Edgerton

Katie Bashista, Spectrum Editor 


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