Ancestral photography

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
Alastair Cook prepares wet plate to photograph Marc Neys
Alastair Cook prepares a wet plate to photograph Marc Neys

The photographer dons safety glasses and blue rubber gloves. His friend the other photographer takes his glasses off and sits for his tintype, the back of his head pressing a cup to the wall. In his lap, the tilted reflector like an absent-minded mirror that has forgotten how to hold an image. Meanwhile, the wet plate primed with chemicals slides into the camera and waits for the takeaway, its quick supper of shadows.

photographer as mummer
the photographer as mummer

Assistants hold a black cloth behind the sitter’s head. The photographer assumes his crouch, a red hood cloaking his moment of intimacy with the camera. Only the bellows and brass eye protrude, like the horse-skull head of a Mari Lwyd without the grin.

Rachel sitting for her tintype portrait
Rachel sitting for her tintype portrait

To a sitter who has practiced meditation, the enforced and urgent stillness feels familiar.

finished tintypes sit in water
finished tintypes of me and Marc sit in the water

Then follow the photographer down to the darkroom and watch your face emerge like Lazarus from the murk. Warm colors appear dark and cool colors light, due to the wet plate’s appetite for blues. No negative intercedes.

The details are so fine and the eyes so strange, you startle. You have seen this face before in a gilt frame. Except that your ancestors wore high, starched collars to try and hide the shame of sunburnt necks, and here you are in t-shirt and ball cap, wearing an expression you can’t begin to read.