Meet the Tintype Photographer with Harley Hack Darkroom
R. J. Gibson’s motto is, “Have darkroom, will travel.” His darkroom is a much-modified 1938 Harley-Davidson package truck, and he bills the sidecar rig as “the world’s fastest darkroom.”
Gibson specializes in tintype photography, the mid-19th century process of coating tin plates with a collodium emulsion and exposing it in the camera while still wet. Going directly to the darkroom, the plates are treated with chemicals to convert the emulsion’s microscopic silver halide particles into an image based on the time and amount of exposure to light. Matthew Brady’s famous Civil War photos were tintypes. Appropriately, Gibson’s home studio is in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Gibson’s work was featured recently on the site petapixel.com.
“I do wet plate collodion photography,” he said, “the same process that was done in the 1860s that requires coating a glass or tin photographic plate sensitizing it, rushing it to the camera, making the exposure, rushing it back to the darkroom and developing it before it dries out. This process was done from the 1850s up into the 1880s when eventually dry plate and film took over. Some of my cameras are well over 150 years old and I use all the same chemicals that were used back then.”
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The itinerant shooter travels to vintage motorcycle events, antique car shows, and various steampunk festivals around the country. His rig and work always attract attention, since visitors can see the images take shape before their eyes and most attendees have never seen the process involved in old-school photography. Back in his home studio, Gibson turns out enlargements and prints for customers.
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His work has been featured in movies and TV series such as Into the West, The Assassination of Jesse James, Gods and Generals, and on networks like the History Channel, PBS, and the History Channel. Gibson has also done demonstrations for the White House press corps and the Smithsonian Institution.