4. EMILY WHITE - October 1 & 16, 2017
I’ve followed Emily’s work for some time on Instagram, awed by the unique look of her tintype images, always curious about the process behind each one. I had been thinking about getting in touch with her for a while, but hadn’t gotten around to it until a balmy day in late September sent my dog and I out on a long walk to meet up with some friends at Lamplighter. Once there, I saw a few dogs hanging out in the small yard attached to Yesterday’s Heroes, and asked if I could bring my dog in to play as well. I chatted with the owner of two sweet pups, who introduced herself as Emily. It wasn’t until an hour after we had parted ways that I realized I had just spoken with someone I’d been following on Instagram for months, whose work I so admired. I messaged her immediately and we set up a time to get together and swap portraits, giving me the chance to document her space and her process.
Emily has a studio space tucked away in Old Manchester, a neighborhood on the south bank of the James surrounded by industrial buildings and loading docks. It’s part of the Bike Lot, a cluster of buildings which used to be an auto garage. Now it houses studios and practice spaces, a warehouse of skate ramps and a bowl, a bike ramp in the courtyard area, and Emily’s workspace. She shares the space with her boyfriend Erich, who is a tattoo artist, and another friend of hers who works with videography. Emily currently operates out of a mobile darkroom of sorts - a bright yellow, worn metal box houses her chemicals and her materials - but she’s hoping to turn one of the rooms into a working darkroom soon where she could also develop 35mm and 120mm film, opening the space up to fellow friends and photographers and potentially making it a small community space.
It is one of the first colder days we’ve seen since spring. It’s bright and sunny, the air is crisp but not quite chilly, the morning sunlight sharp and harsh. When Emily lets me in, she congratulates me on being able to find the place, hidden away as it is. Her two pups, Sadie and Gus, come bounding up to meet me. Sadie is a black and white boston terrier-pit mix, about 4 years old. She’s calm but sassy, referred to by Emily as a “pouty princess.” Gus is only 8 months old but is already bigger than Sadie. He’s excited and rascally, hopping up to greet me, with big blue eyes shining and pink tongue hanging out of his mouth.
The main room of the studio is wood-paneled and dim, several strings of tea lights on the wall and a few lamps give off a yellow-orange glow. A large 8x10 camera sits on one desk and a smattering of tattoo flash sheets and 35mm contact sheets are tacked up on the walls. A bookshelf set into the wall houses a collection of The Walking Dead graphic novels and books on sign painting and chemistry.
Emily leads me back down a short hallway, past a small countertop area and sink where she processes and develops her images, and into an old garage which opens out on a larger outdoor courtyard. The garage area is her main studio space and houses a white backdrop and lighting rig, and her smaller 4x5 camera, which she uses primarily. The light coming in from the open garage door fills the space with a pleasant warmth, softly reflecting on the wood paneling. A collection of old discarded glass bottles lines a high shelf, a hammer and wrench and various other tools hang above a wooden work bench. Sadie and Gus trot past us out to the enclosed cement yard, “I hope you like pop country, ‘cus it’s the only station we get out here,” Emily says, laughing as she fiddles with the volume knob on an old stereo.
She shifts some large brown folders around on the worktable, and opens them up, showing me some of her most recent work. She explains how tintype photography showed up in the 1860’s, and how the images are not actually made of tin. “It’s a misnomer,” she explains, “to emphasize that this process is inexpensive and accessible to the common man.” Tintypes are direct exposures onto metal, entirely unique, essentially unalterable after the developing process. The exposure results in a negative image, but produces a positive image when shot onto black-coated metal, which is generally what Emily does.
She shows me a few ambrotypes she’s created recently, which involve a similar process, but are exposures on glass instead of aluminum. The switch to ambrotypes has been a somewhat recent development for her - the upside of these is that they provide an opportunity for manipulation, whereas tintypes do not. Ambrotypes can be used as negatives in the darkroom, making them duplicable and alterable after the fact. She shuffles around a few of her most recent prints she’s made - overgrown kudzu, dark hills of vines filling the frame, ancient whorls of a gnarled tree. Emily is drawn to southern landscapes, capturing the sprawling, ominous nature of kudzu, the depth and expanse of its reach.
Emily explains how she grew up in a small, rural part of Virginia - a small town called Bremo Bluff - an hour northwest of Richmond, perched on the banks of the James River. Her and her four siblings had to commute to Charlottesville for all of middle school and high school, an hour’s trip there and back each day. When it came time to decide on a college, she was set on getting an experience that was different from what she grew up with, saying that “making yourself uncomfortable is when you grow.” She explains how she wanted to attend a school that was academically rigorous - “I wanted to use my brain,” she says. With goals of being a bilingual educator, she majored in Spanish Literature and Sociology at Middlebury College - tucked away in the Champlain Valley in rural Vermont. And now she is doing just that, teaching darkroom and ambrotype classes at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond, alongside creating tintype for customers and photographing events and weddings.
I ask her how she got into tintype photogtaphy, and she tells me how she was interested in film photography throughout high school, but it wasn’t until after college that she ventured into the world of alternative processes. “I was invited to an artist residency without running water or electricity, and I thought - how can I convert photography to exist in that environment?” Emily didn’t want to have to leave the residency, tucked away in the Green Mountains, to charge a camera battery in a café, or to have to wait until the end of the summer program to develop a ton of accumulated rolls of film. So instead, she went to the library and got a book on the history of photography.
“So how was the residency?” I ask eagerly. “Oh, I didn’t end up going,” she says, offhandedly. She explains how she was part of the first group of people invited to be a apart of the program, and in the time before she was required to respond to the invitation, the program had greatly changed. Its intentions had shifted largely towards an emphasis on community engagement, working the land, and sustainable living - which aren’t negative things, but just not what Emily was looking for in a residency at the time. She decided to move to Richmond that summer instead, claiming her family as a motivating factor. She also saw a community of people in Richmond “engaged in creative things,” which excited her. She liked the outpouring of energy, the larger young population than in Charlottesville.
She begins to set up a stool for me to sit on, placing the white background behind it, setting up her camera on its tripod, setting up the shot. She retreats back to the small counter area as I trail behind, and pulls out a small, thin plate of metal from her yellow box of materials, a few brown glass bottles with small white labels: collodion, silver nitrate, sandarac varnish. She removes a sticky plastic coating from one side of the plate and explains how she has to filter her chemicals every time she uses them - the smallest particle of dust can cause irregularities and defects in the final image. Some people use fresh chemicals for every image or batch of images, but Emily wants to avoid being wasteful when possible - almost every material in the tintype process is reusable.
She tells me how it’s a “humbling thing with chemistry,” as every mistake is usually only one’s own fault. “Your chemicals have to be good, everything has to be clean,” she says. She tells me about a time that she shot an event using expired chemicals - unaware that using them would slow every part of the process down. “I was shooting 10-second exposures in direct sunlight and getting nothing,” she explains, shaking her head. A lot of this process seems to be a somewhat constant learning experience, and it’s clear how much can so easily go wrong, how quick and how knowledgeable you have to be to pull this trick off. “But you can totally McGuyver everything! There’s a real potential for me to geek out!” she says, laughing.
She pours a small amount of collodion onto the plate, using surface tension to slowly coat it with the syrupy substance, letting the excess drip back into the mouth of the little brown bottle. She puts the plate into a silver bath for 2 minutes, where it becomes light-sensitive. She moves quickly and smoothly, talking while she works, simultaneously absorbed in what she’s doing and what we’re talking about. As soon as the plate is ready, we head back out to the stool and the backdrop. She makes sure the shot is still in focus, slides the holder into the camera backing, and removes the dark slide that keeps the plate from being exposed to light. She grabs hold of the shutter release, counts me down from 3, and then releases the shutter, “One mississippi, two mississippi, three mississippi.”
The first exposure is more or less a guessing game, all trial and error, but Emily figures that this shot will need about a 3-second exposure. She replaces the dark slide and removes the film holder, running back inside. She puts on a red LED headlamp before heading into the darkness of the small bathroom, continuing to talk to me through the closed door. She places the exposed metal into a bath of developer for a few moments and emerges from the bathroom.
Emily lets water from the tap run over the plate - “If you don’t rinse it off, it’ll turn blue in the fixer” - before placing it in a tray of clear fixer solution. The faint outline - a negative image of my face - slowly gives way to sharp lines, bright whites, deep shadows. Emily inspects the plate up close, pressing a button on her headlamp so it shines white instead of red, examining the focus, the exposure time, the potential for any defects to emerge. She’s happy with it, but wants to try another with a slightly shorter exposure time, and begins the process again, reaching for another fresh plate.
Emily continues to talk while she works: “A lot of people are deterred by this process, but the process is what I love.” She speaks excitedly about what draws her to tintypes, the intentionality of them, the time they take to produce, the intricacy of the process. It forces her to slow down, to meticulously set up each one her shots, previsualize every image before she captures it. She laments the prevalence of photography - how cheap it has become, how “un-special” it is to many people. She explains how we have gotten in the habit of capturing so many un-special moments, and she loves that people come to her to memorialize their most special ones. “I’m doing my own little campaign to help people connect with photography as being something intentional,” she says as she lets collodion coat the surface of her second plate.
We make two more tintypes before parting ways. After being fixed and varnished, she holds each plate above a small flame, drying them and sealing the images in place, no longer alterable, light forever wed to silver. She tells me about her hopes to graduate to using the larger 8x10 camera for tintypes and glass negatives, and she hauls it out into the garage space, asks me to photograph her with it. It’s huge and beautiful - looking through the viewfinder makes everything look simultaneously sharp and hazy, unreal and dreamlike. She tells me how she’s been applying to residencies at national parks around the United States - she got first runner-up for the last one she applied to. “People tell me that that’s super exciting for someone as young as me, but it still sucks.” She dreams of going to Badlands National Park - huge beautiful rock formations clustered together on the grasslands of South Dakota - but seems content to be doing what she’s doing for now, teaching, photographing, experimenting.
I snap a few more photos of her with Sadie and Gus, both a little tuckered out after all the excitement. We say our goodbyes and she tells me how she may ask me back to take a few more portraits if she doesn’t love the ones we took today. I promise to bring my pup next time too, and I head back outside into the sunlight.
We meet up again a couple weeks later at her studio space so she can take a few more photographs of me. Fall has really started to settle in now, and it’s cold and gloomy out, sharp gusts of wind bring the sun out for only moments at a time. She runs across the yard with the silver bath to meet me at a stool she’s placed in front of a bright blue wall. She takes four photographs of me - one of them we decide we don’t like, and she scrubs the image off the tin under running water so she can use the plate again. She is quick, and smart, and excited when she finally settles on a few shots she likes. Our dogs romp around out back while we pore over these images made from light, the soft electric twang of pop country ever-present in the background.
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