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Medina photographer brings back classic snaps

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Medina photographer Michael Rhodes specializes in tintype photography, a technique that gained popularity more than 150 years ago.

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VERMILION — In a selfie-snapping world, Michael Rhodes is taking it old school.

Rhodes, who has been a Medina photographer for 33 years, has seen the change in technology in his profession up close. Film gave way to digital and now a high-quality photograph can be as close on one’s own cell phone camera.

But five years ago, Rhodes was helping out a friend who was specializing in tintypes — the same type of photography that was the hot new thing in the business in the ’50s.

The 1850s, to be precise.

Rhodes was thunderstruck. His friend dropped the specialty, but Rhodes took it up and has been doing it ever since, rotating between doing modern photo shoots in his Strongsville studio and at weddings and attending Civil War-themed events.

Rhodes will be at this weekend’s Civil War Days, sponsored by the Brownhelm Historical Association in Vermilion.

It’s made him passionate about perfecting the fickle art of tintype. The process was developed in 1851 and was hailed at the time as a more durable and inexpensive way to produce photos. Technically called a “ferrotype,” it developed the nickname “tintype” as prints were made on thin sheets of metal.

In actuality, they never were produced on tin, but on iron sheets. Today, in a small resurgence of the art, most photographers, like Rhodes, use aluminum sheets.

Tintypes were the Polaroids of their day with nearly instant images.

Rhodes uses a wooden camera built by a man in New Jersey who specialized in building reproductions of old cameras.

“My camera is exactly what (famed Civil War photographer) Matthew Brady and his crews would have had in the camps,” Rhodes said.

Rhodes said that while there are a few hundred photographers in the country who specialize in tintypes, only a very few are traveling photographers, setting up “camp” and providing on-the-spot tintypes in their traveling studios. Rhodes is scheduled to do about 13 events this year throughout Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, New York and Kentucky.

He explains his process and the history of the technique as he poses a subject, who will then have to sit still for 4 to 10 seconds while Rhodes snaps the photo. He can produce the image within minutes to show the customer, but the finished work might take another 40 minutes while he washes, dries and varnishes the plate.

Just like in the old days, the process is “all about chemistry,” said Rhodes, who took a workshop on the technique used in the early days. Just like in the old days, the image is burned into a plate with silver nitrate; the only modern nods in Rhodes’ process over the 1860s is the use of aluminum rather than iron sheets and a different “fixer” chemical rather than the traditional cyanide.

“Everything affects it. Wind, humidity, cold. I only rely on daylight, never artificial light. I did a shoot last week and it rained all weekend. I couldn’t take one photo,” he said. “I like to call it a love-hate relationship. I love it, it hates me.”

Due to the nature of the events, Rhodes has developed his own costumed character out of necessity, becoming a wartime photographer. He encamps with Union troops — “only the Union had photographers, the South didn’t” — and, true to history, he brings no food.

“I work with very flammable chemicals so naturally I can’t have a campfire,” he said. “But like photographers then, I usually make arrangements to eat with re-enactors and in return I take their photographs.”

His clientele is “90 percent re-enactors.”

“In this world it’s hard to convince people to spend $30 to $50 on a photograph when they could pull their camera out and take a picture,” he said. “But the re-enactors, they’ve spent money and time making sure they’re dressed appropriately and accurately. They understand the value of the process.”

Contact Rini Jeffers at rinijeffers@gmail.com.
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