For Richmond photographer Emily White, primitive photographic technologies like tintype capture a deeper, more permanent truth than modern digital photography can ever produce.
Leading the charge in the modern-day photography revolution, Emily White’s work is a direct rebellion against the instant gratification generation’s predisposition to photo clutter. Instead of the latest digital cameras and editing software, White uses antique large-format cameras that rely on fairly primitive technology, by today’s standards, to capture unique, one-of-one images on glass or sheets of tin.
Hailing from a small town in Virginia called Bremo Bluff, White’s first experience with photography was with family photos. “I just always loved the stories behind them and was very drawn to them,” she said.
White didn’t come to her current techniques immediately — she started out with more standard photography techniques. “My first camera was a crappy point and shoot camera,” she said. Throughout her teenage years, she progressed from digital cameras to film photography, but was hesitant to pursue photography as a career.
“I always daydreamed about being a photographer, but I thought I had to do something more practical,” she said. “I went to school and studied Spanish and Sociology, but I ended up accelerating my graduation to pursue photography.”
Once she’d accepted that this was the career path she wanted to pursue, she had to figure out how to get into the field. “I didn’t know how to become a photographer, so I just figured I had to work for a lot of people to figure out how,” she said.
She began her career working as a photographer’s assistant… for no pay. After two different unpaid assistant gigs, she was invited to an artist’s residency in rural Vermont, where she experienced an artistic breakthrough.
“The residency was fairly primitive and had the constraints of no running water and no electricity,” said White. “I took those constraints and applied them to photography — that’s how I found this process.”
Modern digital photography allows a photographer to take hundreds of photos per minute, which can seem like a miracle. However, it creates a problem photographers of decades past never had to worry about — over-saturation. Rather than picking through literally thousands of different images in an attempt to determine which one best captures the moment, White prefers to work with the historic process of creating tintypes, a form of photography most widely used in the 19th century. The tintype process can take 10 to 15 minutes to create a single usable photo, which is a tremendous amount of time by modern standards. However, White sees the slowness of the process as a creative advantage.
“I like that it forces you to move slowly,” said White. “Having a slow process forces you to engage with a space or subject differently. If I’m waiting five minutes while my plate is becoming sensitized, I’m spending those five minutes looking at [the subject], thinking about it and how I want to represent it. For me, it’s a very intentional process.”
White also appreciates the self-reliance allowed by tintype photography. “I mix my own chemistry. I cut my own metal,” she said. “My camera is pretty elementary; there are no advanced electronics that I’m detached from knowing about. I understand how to do every step, from start to finish. I’m not reliant on a film manufacturer.”
This is the core of why White prefers more primitive photo technologies. Where many see digital cameras as providing convenience, she can’t help but focus on the alienation from the artistic process that digital technology creates.
“I personally feel like the societal progression leans towards: ‘the more reliant you are on technology, the more successful you are,'” she said. “That gives me anxiety, because I don’t like being reliant upon something I don’t have a full understanding of. I like feeling capable; that, regardless of external factors, I am able to do this.”
White’s work captures a magical yet realistic feel that is hard to find in modern digital and film photography. The haggard, archival look of her photographs hint at a complex backstory. Unlike today, when people can capture their own image multiple times per day with their phone, having your picture taken in the early days of photography was a very big deal; depending on their income level, people of the late 19th and early 20th centuries might only ever be photographed one or two times. Perhaps it is this historical context that adds an alluring deeper layer to White’s work. When documentation of a moment or person requires as much time and effort as she puts into her photos, the connection between art and subject shines through, providing an experience that only comes from true artistry.
More than true images, White’s focus is on representing moments. Her photographs go beyond stagnant landscapes to capture enchanting spaces, photographing them in ways that our eyes can’t perceive.
The length of exposure required for tintypes — often multiple minutes — creates an image that reflects time as well as space. And the result might not look exactly like what we’d see at any given second of time. “”You’re not ever going to have a solid reflection,” she agreed. “If you took a photograph of a tree on a particularly windy day, some leaves are going to be sharp and some are going to be blurry. It captures it differently.”
White also enjoys dabbling in spirit photography, a somewhat duplicitous process that was popular during the spiritualist movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“Photographers capitalized off of people’s interest in being connected with loved ones lost following the Civil War,” White explained. “Some in-camera trickery that would make it seem like there are ghosts.”
Spirit photographers of the late 19th century did their best to convince their clients that their cameras were capturing actual ghosts; many were later exposed as frauds, using double exposures and doctored negatives to produce the desired results. White has no desire to fool anyone, but still enjoys experimenting with the process.
“Spirit photography is something I do for fun,” she said. “I like to play with the truth behind still images, but then paying homage to my personal truths.”
Since she works with photosensitive materials, her process requires her to have a mobile darkroom with her at all times. This is true no matter how remote a place she might be visiting for photography purposes.
“I have a darkroom that is typically in the back of my car,” she said, “or I’ll go out into nature, and hike with my darkroom on my back.”
Today, White makes her living as a photographer, but as with any freelance business, it has its ups and downs. “It keeps me on my toes,” she said. “Sometimes I’m busy, sometimes I’m not.”
She fills the gaps by teaching classes on black and white photography and tintype photography at places like Studio Two Three and Visual Arts Center. They’re popular, too: “I’m teaching a workshop at the Visual Arts Center coming up, but it’s totally full,” she said.
She thinks that, for those who want to learn about the type of photography process she uses, it’s much more valuable to take classes than to just watch an online tutorial about it.
“People think that knowledge is free because it’s all over the internet,” she said. “There’s this cavalier attitude of, ‘Everything you know should be game for me to know.’ I like the idea of collaboration in exchange, but there’s also a level of respecting the work that someones done to gain that knowledge. This person spent years learning their craft. I think it’s good to show that you respect someone’s knowledge.”
Top Photo by Emily White