Advertisement

ART : REVIEW : Framing a Moment in Photo History : ‘Forgotten Marriage’ contains 124 tintype pictures that are worth remembering.

Christopher Knight is a Times art critic

Stanley B. Burns has been collecting (and promoting) American historical photography for several decades. Some of the fruits of those labors are currently on view in a charming exhibition in Riverside, at the California Museum of Photography.

All 124 pictures in the exhibition, “Forgotten Marriage: The Painted Tintype and the Decorative Frame, 1860-1910,” come from Burns’ collection. The show was organized in 1993 by Burns, and it was reconstituted by him last year, and sent on a national tour. It comes with an extensive and informative catalog written by Burns, and published by, yes, Stanley B. Burns.

If “Forgotten Marriage” sounds a bit like a vanity production, that’s because it is. And it both benefits and suffers from the fact.

On the plus side, the New York-based collector-curator-writer-publisher is passionate about his subject, and he’s looked deep into byways of photographic history that might otherwise have languished and been lost. (Burns, who is a physician, has also championed early medical photographs.) As a proselyter he means to spread the word.

Advertisement

On the down side, though, the exhibition suffers from a somewhat narrow and unconvincing perspective. It could benefit from a fresh and distanced eye.

The union in “Forgotten Marriage” is between a particular kind of American photography and the decorative picture frames made expressly for their display. The prior “divorce” between picture and frame is a story worth recounting.

Millions of tintypes were produced in the late 19th century. They offered a quick and inexpensive means for making photographic portraits. (Since soldiers often carried tintypes of loved ones or sent tintypes of themselves to the folks back home, they’ve been called Civil War Polaroids.) A small, thin sheet of iron coated with black varnish and light-sensitive collodion would be placed inside a camera and exposed. Almost instantly, the picture would appear.

Because there is no negative, a tintype image is reversed, and each is a one-of-a-kind photograph. Formally called a ferrotype, the nickname by which they are known came into common use since the metal plate was easily trimmed with tin-snips.

Advertisement

Their popularity was immense, especially in the northeast and the Midwest, and their production was not limited to urban areas. (In the show, a baby picture from the 1870s is stamped with the name of a gallery in the little Massachusetts village where I grew up; the population at the time numbered just a few thousand.) Their production constituted a virtual cottage industry, which had gotten a significant boost during the 1860 presidential race when Abraham Lincoln’s team invented the idea of the campaign button, complete with a tintype picture of their candidate.

Meanwhile, a secondary business soon developed for hand-painting the black-and-white pictures. It is these painted tintypes that comprise the Riverside show.

Hand-coloring made the otherwise remarkably durable metal photograph more fragile. The added expense also made it more special. You weren’t about to carry a painted tintype in your pocket; instead, you’d hang it on the wall.

That meant a picture frame was needed. Renaissance revival, Eastlake, Gothic revival, Aesthetic--name a Victorian furniture style and it’s likely there will be a painted tintype frame to match. About half the photographs are shown in their original frames (although those that are unfortunately aren’t identified in the gallery). The frames handsomely complement, sometimes clash with and even occasionally overwhelm the pictures they carry.

Advertisement

The dime-a-dozen ubiquity of American tintypes is the main reason a thriving commercial market never developed among contemporary collectors. But the frames are a different matter. Like all antique furniture, they command a price. Widespread separation of the cheap painted tintypes from their valuable frames has resulted in the “forgotten marriage” now being remembered in the exhibition.

The quality of tintype painting varies dramatically in the show. If there’s an expressive area most often considered by the usually anonymous painter it is the portrait subject’s eyes.

Sometimes, as in a picture of a small boy standing next to a love-seat, the photograph has been so thickly painted as to appear at first glance to be a folk painting. Elsewhere the coloring is more an all-over tint, or it accentuates clothing.

In one picture of a Union soldier, the buttons of his uniform, the epaulets, braid and his insignia are highlighted in gold, which is picked up again in both the golden decoration of the mat and the frame. Another soldier-portrait is actually a photograph of an older portrait painting, and was in turn hand-colored.

Advertisement

“Forgotten Marriage” presents these painted and framed tintypes as a democratized version of traditional portrait paintings, one whose modest cost extended to both the middle and working classes a genre hitherto limited to wealthier patrons. To the degree that the invention of the camera in 1839 changed portraiture forever, the assertion is true. Painting was indeed the model for photographic portraits.

Yet, I don’t think the claim quite captures the aspirations for painted tintypes. For rather than yearning to be regarded as paintings, they seem instead to aspire to the condition of permanent color photographs--a technology that eluded the new medium of photography for decades after its invention but that the public hankered for from the start.

Hand-painting was popular for other photographic methods besides tintypes, after all. And as the advertisements luring customers typically stressed, painting a tintype would make the portrait more “lifelike.” That couldn’t be said for any traditional portrait painting, but being lifelike is what made photographs magical.

Burns is plainly crazy about early photography, even to the point of making the insupportable claim that, someday, photographs will be regarded as the most important art of the 19th century. His enthusiasm has its virtues and its limitations; either way, “Forgotten Marriage” is certainly worth remembering.

Advertisement

*

“Forgotten Marriage: The Painted Tintype and the Decorative Frame, 1860-1910,” California Museum of Photography, 3824 Main St., Riverside. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. Through Feb. 18. (909) 784-3686.


Advertisement
Advertisement