At Sundance Film Festival, photographer Victoria Will had just minutes with some of Hollywood’s most famous actors and directors — arguably, some of the most photographed people in the world — but she chose a process that at its core is imperfect: tintype.
The 19th century wet-plate photography process predates film. There are no negatives, no large digital files or multiple frames, and no do-overs. Each image is one of a kind.
It starts in the darkroom, where each plate must be coated by hand with light sensitive emulsion. The exposure starts with a comically blinding amount of light, which is reflected off the subject into the camera lens and onto the aluminum plate still wet with emulsion. Any dry patches will remain undeveloped. It is an unforgiving medium. It also makes each image undeniably unique.
“I love that when you make a tintype you are making a thing, a physical photographic object — one that you can hold and experience in a different way,” Will told In Sight. “But I also love the finicky nature of the chemistry. Each plate is one of a kind. In the digital age these two aspects of the medium really inspire me.”
The images, which started as a side project for Will while on assignment for the Associated Press and were first published by Esquire, became a body of work compiled over two years. Now, the work sees a new form in her book, “Borne Back,” released in November by Peanut Press.
The 6-by-8-inch book features portraits of household names — Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, Robert Redford and Anne Hathaway — to name a few. But it’s not the subjects that stand out; it’s the photographs, which are beautifully printed to complement the imperfect process by which they were made. Timeless and intimate, each subject inside takes on their own persona.
“What I love about the medium is that it sparks something different for everyone,” Will said. “I remember Maggie Gyllenhaal wanting to take on a persona of a Civil War widow and Kurt Russell being shocked by how much he resembled his grandfather.”
On one of the last pages of the book is a quote from Walker Evans: “The eye traffics in feelings, not in thoughts.” When asked, Will said it sums up what she loves and why she is so drawn to photography. “A successful image for me is one that makes you feel. It needs to touch you in some way,” she said. “I think unconsciously, and clearly articulated by Evans here, photographers are moved by emotion. That’s what is actually pushing the shutter.”