It wasn’t Victoria Will’s first rodeo when
she began taking tintypes in one of
Sundance’s many tiny portrait studios.
The challenge had always been about making
her space different: a chalk board to draw on
one year, wild-looking backdrops the next,
painted canvases that corresponded with people’s outfits the year after that. With
2013’s film festival done and over, Will
wracked her brain for something new.
That fall, the New York-dwelling
photographer wandered into Penumbra Foundation’s booth at Pho-toville in Brooklyn, where large-for-mat photographer Lisa Elmaleh was
taking tintypes of the festival-goers.
Will sat in front of the 4 x 5 camera,
intrigued when Elmaleh, wearing a
headlamp, disappeared into a trailer
and emerged with a developed wet
plate. She handed Will the final product: a portrait that smelled like chemicals and looked like her in 1860.
Will researched how to shoot tintypes, ordered the chemicals online,
and in 2014 and 2015, she set up a
darkroom and shot tintype portraits of
actors, directors and other creatives at
Sundance. She used a strobe—it wasn’t
exactly common for wet plates, but
neither was having only three minutes
or less with dozens of sitters for just
one exposure each.
In 2016, she took a break from
tintypes to instead create cinemagraphs of the talent, who by then grew
so fond of her portraits that they asked if the
Canon C300 she was using was in fact an 8 x 10
camera. In 2017, Will made Borne Back.
What was it like shooting at Sundance?
Victoria Will: Sundance sort of puts you in
a box, and if you’re lucky, you have four walls
and you make a photo studio. In 2014, I was
still on assignment to take digital pictures, so
by victoria will
OPPOSI TE PAGE: Bill Hader and
have fewer imperfections than
others depending on the year
they were made.
I was adding the tintypes as an extra thing. I
would say, “Oh, if you guys have time, I’d love
for you to come back here and I’ll make a tin-
type.” People would walk in, smell the chemis-
try and say, “This is great, what are we doing
here?” It was something different for them that
didn’t have that same Groundhog Day feel of
mistakes, so the tintype world was really up
in arms. The guys who are purists thought my
technique was terrible. I’m the photographer,
so I’m communicating and directing the shoot,
but I had a whole team of people helping me in
the darkroom, mixing the chemistry and what-
not, but none of us were trained properly that
first year. That’s what made it so mag-
ical though—we were in it for the love
of it and were learning as we went. I
wasn’t really affected by the criticism
from the tintype community, first of
all because it sparked a conversation
about a medium that people weren’t
really aware of, but also it’s so sub-
jective. What I love about them some
people don’t like. The tintypes you
might be used to seeing are using just
daylight, so they’re long exposures. I
was in a very dark room where I didn’t
have that opportunity, so I incorporat-
ed strobe, which made the exposure
much more instantaneous.
And you went back to shoot
tintypes for a second year, right?
VW: In 2015, I wanted to try it again,
however I was 8-and-a-half months
pregnant, so I couldn’t really do the
chemistry. I brought in a team of
amazing people from Penumbra who
were willing to dive into the circus with
me, and with their help, we made almost 150 plates. We were a machine.
But you can definitely see a difference
between the first and second years in
the chemistry. Most of them have no mistakes.
And it’s really interesting, I’ve been asked to be
in a few exhibitions, and the plates that have the
most unique chemistry marks are the ones that
people seem to gravitate to most. And now,
when people ask me to make tintypes on an
assignment or on a particular project, they’ll
say, “Please, mess them up, mess them up as
much as possible,” and I’m like, “I can try to
going from studio to studio shooting the same
portraits. At the time, I hoped to walk away
with ten plates—that to me was a successful ad-
venture. But that first year, we made about 50.
How did the photo industry react?
VW: Well, what makes the tintypes interesting
to me is the artifacts on them—the weird splotch-es and the swirls—but really, those are chemistry
CAMERAS: 1940s 4x5 Graflex Super D, Sinar P2 4x5 LENSES: 1860s Hermagis Petzval 203mm f/3.8, Wollensak Raptar
210mm f/4.5 LIGHTING: 4 Profoto Pro-8a or 4 Profoto D4 packs (9600 W/s total), beauty dish, 4-foot Octabank