John Coffer singing the praises of tintype on the sidewalks of the town
of Penn Yan in the old Burned-Over District
A reader wrote to tell me that he would really enjoy a film/darkroom post about once a month (he thought once a week would be to much). That was the reason for Sunday's post about the beautiful enlarger. I hope this doesn't qualify as a second darkroom post, then, because if it does, the Internet will start to hum with nasty comments about how the guy at The Online Photographer hates digital! I don't, honest. I just love all photography, that's all.
But you see that big box on the tripod at the left side of the picture? That's John Coffer's darkroom.
I first met John, who certainly qualifies as an interesting guy, at his show at the Arts Center of Yates County when it opened last month. Not only has he devoted thirty years of work to a photographic medium that was essentially an American invention back in the 1850s (America's first major contribution to photography), but he lives his entire life as if it were still the mid-1800s. He lives in a tiny log cabin way out in the woods, grows his own food, and although he does have a web page, he doesn't have electricity. He told me yesterday that the reason he settled in this area is that the horse and buggy he uses to get around in wouldn't seem peculiar here, because there are lots of horse-and-buggy Amish and Mennonite church groups hereabouts, and buggies on the highway and the streets of Penn Yan are a common sight. He can blend in here.
Does he cheat on 1850? Well, a little. He owns a Model T Ford. And his girlfriend has a car, in which he sometimes rides.
Student group portrait from a tintype workshop: Edith Weiler, John,
Doug Lloyd, C.J. Taylor and Doyle Bussey
...But he deserves that. For seven years, John crisscrossed North America in a wagon drawn by a horse named Brownie, making tintypes, doing public demonstrations, and teaching. He's settled down now, on his farm in Dundee, NY, dubbed "Camp Tintype," where he conducts a popular series of three-day workshops throughout the temperate months for students from around the country and around the world.
Not a dime a dozen
Did you know the expression "dime a dozen" originated with tintypes? That's how much they cost at first, and that was very cheap compared to the competition. Tintypes—the real name was ferrotype, after the iron plates used—was definitely a lower-class medium. Prosperous people would have had first Daguerreotypes, then wet-collodion cartes de visite made. Tintypes are in-camera originals, each one-of-a-kind, and they're almost "instant"—John probably took no more than ten minutes making each of the three he made on the sidewalk. That doesn't include japanning the plate. As John's portable darkroom box demonstrates, you don't need much in the way of a darkroom, either.
Tintypes are popular among Civil War re-enactors and Old West buffs, but as John explained, Mathew Brady never would have made tintypes. He was a high society portraitist, and during the Civil War his idea was to sell large editions of prints. He made glass plate negatives.
One thing I thought was poignantly amusing—it turns out that a lot of tintype aficionados use pre-made aluminum plates these days—apparently they're made and sold for trophies and plaques—and John considers this to be a regrettable selling-out to...what else, convenience. Real tintype artists use proper iron or steel plates, hand-lacquered. And it's often "found metal"—one of John's students, Mark Richards, who showed me a whole stack of his (excellent) work, mentioned that I ought to look at the back of each plate to see where the metal came from. Sure enough, some of his tintypes were made on metal from old cookie tins, old ammo tins, and old coffee cans.
John's tintypes aren't a dime a dozen, though. He routinely sells them at prices up to $8,000 in New York City galleries. (He's been featured in the New York Times—the writer back then made merry about his single state at that time, but I met John's girlfriend Ann, and she seems very nice.)
I won't go on too much about John's photography because I'm not able to show it to you, but my impression is that he's a genuine creative photographer who plays with his chosen medium and pushes its boundaries. He made the first-even mammoth tintypes, for instance, and one of his pictures is of a metal container that somebody shot full of holes. John then put a few bullets through the tintype itself for echo and emphasis. Makes viewers smile.
The Times article reports that he has a computer, but no more I guess. If you want to inquire about taking a workshop, the fastest way to get hold of him is to write him a letter. I mean on paper, in an envelope with a stamp. It's faster than email, which a friend prints out for him and mails to him every few weeks.
His address, if you're interested, is:
John A. Coffer
1236 Dombroski Rd.
Dundee, NY 14837
(Thanks to Llewellyn and Laurel)
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Featured Comments from:
Ed Kirkpatrick: "Mike, I was scheduled, paid up and ready to go to one of John's weeklong camps back in May 2005. He sent me his book/manual and DVDs, all handwritten in pencil but Xeroxed (not the DVDs of course) which I read cover to cover twice. Three weeks before the camp, the Army decided that weekend was the deployment date for my son Scott's second tour to Iraq and I decided to forego the camp in favor of seeing him off. I wrote to John explaining the circumstance and that I understood if he could not refund the tuition but I felt this was more important. John wrote right back and refunded the entire amount and said to keep the book and DVDs. I thought that was very generous and resolved to take another of his camps as soon as it could be arranged.
"It never happened. Three months later Scott was killed as you know and that weekend was the last time we were together. I lost interest in everything for a long time and as I recovered my interest in photography it veered to digital. When we sold our farm to travel full time in our RV I sold all my film gear. I often think back to the 'what if I had skipped' his deployment and the certain guilt of that decision and am thankful for kindness of people in the world like John. I wish there was some way, someday I could manage that experience. Maybe, who knows. Thanks for this post."