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Studio in Phoenix is bringing back a vintage photography practice

By Amber Victoria Singer
Published: Tuesday, July 25, 2023 - 12:06pm
Updated: Tuesday, July 25, 2023 - 12:09pm

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Throwback media like records, cassette tapes and CDs have been making a huge comeback recently.

The same goes for Polaroids and traditional film cameras. But there’s an even older practice of physical photography that’s growing in popularity.

The ferrotype method involves printing a photograph onto a thin sheet of iron. It’s more commonly known as tintype, because of the tinny feeling of the material. It was invented in the 1850s, but became mostly obsolete in the early 20th century with the invention of film rolls.

One portrait studio in north Phoenix specializes in this type of old-time photography. The Show’s Amber Victoria Singer spoked with photographer Matthew Stella more about it. 

Matthew Stella
Morgan Kubasko/KJZZ
Matthew Stella

The photo process involves a camera older than both Stella and his assistant combined. After developing the photo in his tiny, closet-sized darkroom, he brought out the rectangular film. The colors were inverted and the woman in the photo had white hair and dark skin. 

Stella placed the plate into a deep tray and poured a chemical over it. As he swished the liquid back and forth over the sheet of aluminum, the unexposed silver washed away. The white hair and facial features darken, and a clear face emerged. 

"That’s what got me; the minute I saw the fixing videos, I was just like, I want to do that. It’s just the coolest thing," said Stella.

Tintype portraits were popular in the 19th century for being cheap and durable. Now the method is considered more of a novelty or folk art. It’s a way of preserving tradition, and it’s cool. There are tintype photography studios around the country offering similar services. 

Stella first started experimenting with the process for a popup booth at a tattoo convention.

"I bought everything I kind of thought I needed and it was all wrong, and I just kept just trial and error," said Stella. "I just had tons of buddies over and we stayed up ‘til 2, 3 o’clock in the morning every single night just shooting and shooting and shooting. And then we did the tattoo convention and people were super stoked about it. And I just didn’t want to lose momentum, so I just went full force with it. And the rest is this."

“This” is Silver and Cedar, Stella’s photography studio. It’s a small studio.

There’s room for a portrait area, a tiny darkroom and Stella’s desk, but not much else beyond displays of old cameras and some taxidermy. 

The whole tintype photo process takes less than fifteen minutes. It starts off in the darkroom, which is barely big enough for two people to stand inside.

Stella claims it’s a simple process, but I’m lost after the first step. All I know is there’s peeling, pouring, shaking and tapping. 

All of this turns the sign engraving aluminum he started out with into actual silver, ready to capture the likeness of Stella’s assistant.

Stella estimates that he’s created around 4,000 portraits since starting his business in 2020. He’s compiled his favorite ones into a book called "When Silver Talks to Light."

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