Iconic Artistry

Photographer breaths new life into historic portraiture medium
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A double exposure creates a ghostly illusion in this image of photographer Bud Kibby. Photo by Michelle Cuppy.

Abraham Lincoln. Billy the Kid. Civil War soldiers, dour and focused. A decorated General Custer. Nineteenth century families, seated and serious.

These are the mental images that jump to mind when you hear the word “tintype” – aged photos of long-deceased relatives, unsmiling, preserved eternally in their black and white world.

Tintype photographer Bud Kibby becomes the subject in their own studio. August, 2023. Photo by Michelle Cuppy.

Today, while respecting the craft and tradition of a long-standing medium, a Grand Rapids photographer is resurrecting the tintype in a small studio on the city’s southeast side, bringing new textures and subjects to the camera lens.

Bud Kibby, who uses the pronouns “they/them,” has been a photographer for over 15 years. They photograph corporate events, weddings, engagements, portraits and more as TINYuproar. Most recently, Kibby has branched out into a new medium– tintype– and found a passion for the hands-on process of making a hand-held photograph.

Kibby is a self-taught tintype photographer who attended Kendall College of Art and Design. Specializing in photographing larger-than-life subjects, minorities, and LGBTQ+ subjects, Kibby brings a new look and perspective into one of history’s earliest methods of photography.

“It was the second photographic process that fixed an image on a surface,” Kibby said. “It was made in the year 1851 and it was popular till about 1920-ish, primarily because roll film was invented in the late 1800s by Kodak. So, it sort-of made tintype as a process go out of vogue because it’s fairly complex.”

Kibby is a self-proclaimed “nerd” who loves the delicate, detailed processes that tintype requires.

“I love things that involve making,” Kibby said. “Using your hands, getting an end-product that’s physical in the real world. (Tintype) isn’t just a digital picture that will never be printed. It’s an object. It’s a sculpture. It’s a thing, and it’s an heirloom, too, because it lasts 160+ years.

“If you see images of Civil War soldiers or Victorian folks posing together, that’s roughly around when tintype is at its height and popularity. Those images still survive even though they’re made in the 1860’s and 1870’s.”

Kibby initially gravitated toward the medium after spending time dabbling in Polaroids.

“I started with some knockoff (tintype) kits that are cheap and hard to use,” Kibby said. “After trying a couple of those I (decided) to go all in, so I got the actual chemistry.”

From there, it was months of trial and error as Kibby hunted for resources and taught themself a new medium, learning the history and chemistry of the process along the way.

The most valuable resource proved to be a Facebook group titled The Collodion Bastards. The group, like many Facebook art groups, is made up of people from around the globe sharing their techniques, pieces, and methods with one another to help learn and grow in their craft.

Through the group, Kibby found a circle of knowledgeable tintype photographers and started putting together the processes they’d learned.

“It (was) practice, practice, practice, honestly,” Kibby said. “It’s trial and error. I’d make a plate that didn’t work and have to find out what went wrong.”

The process taught Kibby a lot about relinquishing control in their art.

“I’m a bit of a control freak,” they admitted. “With tintype, you can control things to a point but if there’s a speck of something in the silver nitrate (it creates) a chemistry error. And also, you can’t really control outside factors. So, if the rinse water is maybe too cold and the plate stops developing faster than it should, then that creates a weird result.”

While perfecting the processes proved to be a challenge, so did learning to make a consistent product. Kibby had to learn how much light was too much and how much was just right and how much power was needed to get the best flash– on top of being able to consistently replicate a sensitive chemical process.

“I had it down roughly after about six months,” Kibby said. “I brought friends in (to photograph) initially and then eventually got to a point where I could start marking it.”

After hours and hours in their studio, testing, shooting and exploring, Kibby was ready to share a new process with the world.

Now the difficulty was how to market a tintype.

“You are only ever taking one image at a time, one physical image. That image can’t be replicated.”

That’s how Kibby has been describing the tintype to their subjects. It’s proven difficult to explain the unique charm of tintype in a world where digital images are just a snap away.

Kibby also likens the tintype to NFTs (non-fungible tokens), collectable, one-of-a-kind entities that recently took the investment scene by storm. Like a unique NFT, Kibby said, a tintype is an individual photograph of a subject at a fixed point in time and cannot be replicated.

“If I want to have a copy (of the photo), I have to shoot it again,” they said.

Additionally, Kibby has found that the black-and-white nature of the tintype often takes their subjects by surprise.

“It’s an interesting thing to explain to someone who doesn’t understand tintypes,” Kibby said, laughing. “They’re like, ‘What do you mean there’s no color? It’s black and white?” I say ‘Yes, it’s made of silver.”

Delving into the chemistry process has been one of the things Kibby has enjoyed most about the journey into tintype photography. Kibby doesn’t cut corners– using real chemicals to hand-process each plate through silver nitrate and collodion. In a mini darkroom lit by a single red bulb, they gently bathe the wet plates as they develop.

But sometimes, due to factors beyond human control, the plate has a flaw. Kibby said one of the biggest lessons tintype has taught them as an artist is learning to lean into the flaws when they occur.

“I think the errors are beautiful,” Kibby said. “They’re absolute magic; they’re not reproducible. They’re the most unique part of this entire process. But it requires that I let go. I have to not control everything; I have to not be frustrated when things happen that aren’t as planned because it’s a chemical and you can’t control every chemical reaction.”

In addition to learning the ropes of photography’s oldest method, Kibby’s been drawn into the fascinating history of the tintype and its origin.

“Silver nitrate is an explosive if you’re not careful,” Kibby said. “What is wild to me is that people used collodion as the liquid bandage of the era. So, someone figured out that a liquid bandage plus an explosive would create a fixed image.

“But the reason they call it a tintype (is because) poor photographers that could scrape together the money to afford a tintype camera in that era couldn’t necessarily afford steel or other materials that were used to make plates back then. So, they would take oil cans, which at the time were made of tin, and they’d cut them with shears, flatten them out and then coat them and shoot on the inside of an oil can made of tin.”

Today, Kibby isn’t shooting on actual tin. But one thing has stayed the same through the years–  the upside-down and flipped camera.

“Everything’s upside-down and backwards, which is super fun and challenging and interesting,” Kibby said, laughing. “As a photographer you learn stage right. But stage right is the opposite in this camera, so it’s my right again. I fumble a little bit sometimes.”

While early tintypes required their subjects to hold a pose for up to 20 minutes, perfectly still to minimize blurs, another perk of modern technology and the addition of flash bulbs is that Kibby’s subjects don’t have to stay seated for long periods of time while the photo is taken.

“It’s just literally an instant fire kind and then the person blinks profusely and swears they blinked during the shot,” Kibby said. “Which is never actually the case. It’s only happened three times in six years.”

Visitors to Kibby’s studio at the Tanglefoot Building can expect the red-carpet treatment, as Kibby not only enjoys the photography but also creating a one-of-a-king experience for their subjects.

In addition to a photo that will likely outlive its subjects, Kibby’s guests are greeted with a glass of wine or other beverage of preference, a wardrobe consultation. “I typically tell people that they should come as they want to be seen in 160 years,” they said– and time to relax and converse with one of Grand Rapids’ most fascinating artistic minds while the plate develops.

“I like to make my space chill and comfortable.”

Kibby carefully curates his guest list to ensure they’re working with subjects that understand the medium and respect the space they’re creating, often finding unique and memorable subjects through mutual connections and community events.

They also put an emphasis on capturing flamboyant personalities, daring fashion choices and bold looks, LGBTQ+ couples and minorities with their lens, a deliberate juxtaposition of the stiff Victorian-era personas typically seen in tintype photographs.

“I enjoy making this more of an everyone’s thing,” Kibby said. “One of the things I enjoy most is being one-on-one. The people I bring into my space are people I want in my space. Musicians, other photographers, some actors, mostly creative folks. And I get to learn more about them, what makes them tick, what they love, what they’re passionate about, and I just chat with them and hang out while I’m making the plate.”

Together, Kibby and their subjects discuss the photo layout, poses and aesthetic, after which it’s taken and Kibby develops a timeless keepsake while you wait.

One of the things Kibby said they love most about taking tintype portraits is the intimacy of the photography process itself.

“It’s so unlike digital photography, because digital photography has an interruption in the connection between the sitter and the photographer,” they said. “The photographer is almost always looking at the back of the camera to make sure the image they got is what they want, so there’s an interruption. The conversation is halted by assessment of the product. Whereas with this, I’m conversing the entire time with the person and then we get to see the product together. We get to see it be fixed, go from negative to positive together (and) the whole thing is a mutual experience. There’s nothing to really interrupt or disturb that.”

Forming those connections with their subjects during the quiet intensity of a tintype shoot is what keeps Kibby coming back to the medium. That, and finding perfect faces to capture in their lens.

“I would say one of my favorites would be a gentleman who was referred to me named Whiskey Zak,” Kibby said. “He’s named Whiskey Zac because he’s basically a wine connoisseur, but for whiskey. I actually don’t know what his last name is still to this day. He had a superstitious half dollar he put over his eye.”

In the portrait, Whiskey Zac is captured with an antique shot glass in one hand and the silver dollar perched in his eye socket, gazing straight into the eye of the camera lens. The textures of his apparel, the lines on his face and the fine etching on the coin are in perfect detail.

The photo ended up being one of Kibby’s favorites, and they shot a second one to keep in memory of the moment.

Another common subject for Kibby is their wife and infant son, Flynn, a challenge as he’s at an age where holding still even for a second proves difficult, resulting in a bank of cherished but blurry photos.

“He is a total goober in front of the camera,” Kibby joked.

When they’re not photographing events in the Grand Rapids community, crafting tintype photos or spending time with family, Kibby is immersed in their latest project- building a 14-foot-long camera out of an old camera used to recreate posters before the invention of the Xerox printer.

Kibby came by the massive machine by chance when one of the artists that shared the Tanglefoot building with them passed away and the camera needed to find a new home.

“This is only valuable to like two people in the country and I’m one of them,” Kibby said.

Right now, the metal monstrosity lives in Kibby’s studio, where they’re slowly building it out into a tintype camera, assembling parts as they put it together. The camera, when finished, will be able to shoot onto 26 by 26-inch plates, giving Kibby a whole new size and shape to play with.

“I would be one of three people that I know of globally shooting this size commercially,” Kibby said.

The camera will be used for portraits and object photography, given its immobility. Kibby said the camera should be finished within the next several months, and they’re excited to experiment with a new size of photograph.

In the meantime, Kibby continues developing tintypes in their small Tanglefoot studio, building a portfolio of beautiful faces, capturing and documenting the weird, the bold and the unusual in chemicals and metal.

Bud Kibby can be reached online at http://tinyuproar.com/ for booking.

 

 

 

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