Joseph Wyman Brown is a 34-year-old who is traversing the country in a 2011 Ford E-350 Shuttle Bus immortalizing the people he meets through a photography process from the 1850s.
The Pittsburgh artist uses a wet plate collodion process to create haunting images known as tintypes or ferrotypes on thin sheets of black anodized aluminum (historically, iron and glass were used, not tin, despite the name).
Brown, with his hulking camera, canvas apron, weathered fiddler cap and beard, looks like he stepped out of the Civil War era. A native of Blandburg, PA in Cambria County, he developed a love of photography while serving in Iraq with the Army National Guard.
Upon his return, his portfolio earned him a series of scholarships to the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. Brown used tintypes to differentiate himself from his peers and shadowed Jason Snyder, another local photographer who specializes in the old-school method.
“The best way to start is to find a mentor,” Brown says. “Eight out of 10 people who are doing tintypes today have learned it from someone else. For the longest time, I felt like a lighter that wouldn’t light. When I met Jason, I finally produced a spark.”
Since May 2019, he’s been crisscrossing the country, hosting pop-up sessions at breweries, cafes, yoga studios, barbershops and tattoo parlors. Typical tintype sizes and costs during his events range from $75 (4 x 5) to $145 (8 x 10).
He’s taken more than 800 tintypes over the years. Subjects range from friends and family members to pets, landscapes and folk singer Willi Carlisle, who posed with his accordion in the Joelton, Tennessee, sunshine.
Keep an eye on Brown’s Instagram page for updates on his whereabouts.
During a recent pop-up session held at Necromancer Brewing Co. in Ross Township, Brown created dozens of portraits, including one of my 12-year-old daughter, Sarah, and me.
In an age dominated by airbrushed selfies, it was refreshing (and a bit shocking) to see such an honest, beautifully unforgiving, warts-and-all image. Brown doesn’t just see faces through his vintage Bausch & Lomb lens, he channels souls.
The aluminum plate is coated in a collodion solution (a mixture of nitrocellulose in ether and alcohol) before being inserted into the camera. Brown sets up the shot, which takes about 10 to 12 minutes, and ducks under the black drop cloth, where he sees the image upside down and reversed. He reads the subject’s body language and facial structure, examining how the light and shadows play upon their features. The color blue appears nearly white, giving folks with Bette Davis eyes a ghostly stare.
Brown doesn’t recommend that people wear clothing with lettering on it, as the words will appear backward in the final product. Opt for dark, solid colors or bold patterns. Wear eye-catching accessories such as hats and scarves. The camera picks up UV light instead of visible light, so ditch the makeup routine for a day to allow freckles, wrinkles and other so-called imperfections to pop.
After a dramatic flash, Brown heads to his mobile darkroom. Like a mad scientist bathed in red light, he mixes the toxic chemicals to bring the negative to life.
Unlike paper pictures that can rip or fade, tintypes stand the test of time, becoming family heirlooms passed down through the generations.
Brown puts his name on the back of every photograph he makes.
“It’s a statement that I existed,” he says. “In a sense, I get to live on forever.”