Behind the Scenes at the DAM

Intimate & Demanding Tintype-Making with Will Wilson

Tintypes are 8x10-inch black-and-white photographs made on thin aluminum (not tin!) sheets. Originally developed in the mid-1800s, tintypes were the medium of choice for many photographers documenting the West.

Now, contemporary Navajo photographer and the Denver Art Museum's current artist-in-residence Will Wilson has resurrected the method for his current project, Critical Indigenous Photography Exchange. The series is in response to what some consider the romanticized views of a “vanishing race” immortalized by early photographers, especially Edward S. Curtis.

At the beginning of the 1900s Curtis endeavored to document the lifestyles of American Indians using another early photography technique that involved glass plates. Will has set out to capture portraits from today’s American Indian communities to counter the representations of Native American cultures frozen in time. He’s at the Denver Art Museum this week doing that and more.

The process of making a tintype is very intimate and demanding, both for the artist and for the sitter. For Will Wilson, it means a kind of repeated relay race between prepping the metal plates with light-sensitive chemicals at the sink, crawling into the ice-fishing tent-turned-darkroom to let the chemicals set, crawling back out to compose the portrait, crawling back in to get the plate, having to work around a very large camera to take the photo and finally returning to the dark room to develop the image.

For sitters it means making ever so slight adjustments to your posture to find the right pose, concentrating on sitting still for what feels like minutes, but is only a few seconds, baking in the heat of six lights trained on your face, feeling the burst of 4,440 watts on your skin when the flash is set off and finally relaxing when all is said and done.

Here are some of the different ways visitors have described the physicality of sitting for a tintype portrait:

  • Of the heat from the lights, one visitor—when finished with his portrait—said, “It’s a good thing we’re done! I was about to give up all my secrets!
  • Of the burst of photons from the flash, one visitor observed that, “It’s what you’d expect to feel if there was ever a nuclear explosion.
  • The artist, Will, calls the flash “Soul cleansing.”

You can find Will at working in the artist-in-residence space on level three of the North Building through Sunday, giving a talk tonight, installing a one-week-only pop-up exhibit and chatting with visitors at an Insider Moment on Friday. While you’re on level three, also check out a display of Edward Curtis’s photographs and examine the ways the two artists’ projects, although separated by more than 100 years, are put in dialogue with each other.

Rose Eason is the coordinator of adult and college programs in the education department at the Denver Art Museum. Rose has been at the DAM since 2012 and her favorite artwork that has been on view here is Mud Woman Rolls On.