Dan Herrera: Tintype photographer
In an increasingly digital age, the process of taking and developing photos has only gotten easier and faster. Any idiot with a cellphone thinks he or she is an amateur photographer. But for others, photography is all about the past. Dan Herrera is a Sacramento-based photographer and adjunct professor who focuses not on Instagram or Snapchat filters, but on photography styles of old. Really old. Think 1800s, give or take, and you’ll be in the right century. Herrera just opened up Emerge from the Aether Tintype Studio in Sacramento, so SN&R caught up with him to talk about just what exactly tintype photography is, pirates, pinups and, you know, cosplay.
What is the tintype process like?
It dates back to the 1850s. It’s the complete opposite of what digital stuff is nowadays. It’s totally inconvenient. They’re really, really long exposure times. And so, it’s a throwback to how things used to be done, it’s the same way that your great-great-grandfather would photograph in the 1850s.
Are you doing them as they were done in the 1800s?
The only difference is I’m using electronic flashes. You can also do it in the sunlight, but I use electronic strobes vs. the old gunpowder flashes that they used to use.
Is it a pain to develop?
It’s definitely slower. I feel like it’s made me a better photographer because it’s forced me to really slow down and really look at what you’re doing. Because each plate that’s exposed takes about five to seven minutes to do—that’s for one shot, so you really have to make it count, otherwise you have to do it over again, you know, vs. today when you can just take a thousand photographs and pick the one that maybe looks the best.
What got you into tintype?
I’ve been doing alternative-process photography, which is a fancy word for older style photography, for awhile. I had a big show in 2012 that was gum bichromate printing, which is a different kind of older process. The tintype portraits historically have a very hauntingly beautiful aspect to them, which I’ve always found really interesting. So I started doing research and started getting all the chemistry together … and I just started doing it.
Was it hard to find that stuff?
Not really. There’s a few places that kind of cater to older darkroom techniques. So, sourcing out the chemistry isn’t a big deal. And you can find older film equipment that you can adapt and tweak to make acceptable for wet plate process—which is what tintype is—through eBay or online sellers like Craigslist and things like that. You just have to know what to look for.
Why do you think photography styles like this have had a resurgence?
I think there’s definitely a pushback to what’s happening with photography and Photoshop and the whole digital revolution. There’s a convenience factor that’s wonderful—I still shoot digitally a lot and I use that for my commercial work—but there’s something missing. It’s like that tactile, tangible quality that photography was kind of known for. There’s something special about going into a darkroom and doing things the slow, hard way. There’s an appreciation for the art of it, you know? And then not only that but, like I said before, I feel like it’s made me a better photographer in terms of slowing down. The process of slowing down has helped inform the way that I work digitally and I think a lot of people find that appealing.
You told me you’ll be working the Beard and Mustache Competition on April 2.
Yeah, so I recently started doing mobile pop-up booths where I’ll set up shop—it’s kind of the same way they used to do things back in the 1850s at carnivals and things like that. The process is fairly instantaneous. The sitter, or the person getting the portrait done, they can watch me coat the plate, sensitize it, get it ready to go and then we expose it. And then they can see it develop right in front of them. … I bring a little mobile dark box that I made—it’s like a small version of a darkroom that I just tuck my head under—and I get in there and do that.
What’s the most wild or outlandish thing you’ve shot?
The cosplay scene is pretty incredible, so I would have to say the different cosplayers that I’ve photographed. That is going to be one of the next big recognized art forms—the idea that there’s these people who are making their own homebrew costumes that are insanely detailed and really, really impressive. … They put this incredible amount of effort into their costumes and so being able to photograph that is pretty exciting.
What’s one famous picture that you wish you had taken?
Oh man, that’s a tough one. I think probably the one that my wife took the other day of my two-month-old son. I wish I’d taken that one.