Developing the Ghost

Christian House

“My way is the same way as in 1853.” Tif Hunter is explaining his take on the 19thcentury wetplate tintype photography, a mercurial process that he gleefully calls “beguiling”. Talking to me as he packs up his Bermondsey studio – after 30 years of London life he is relocating to some “tumbledown barns” in Herefordshire – Hunter has the enthusiasm of a convert to a cause, or perhaps, more appropriately, a boy who has found a fabulous log-forgotten toy.

A successful commercial photographer – shooting campaigns for clients such as Sony, Citroën, Fabergé and De Beers – he has in recent years enjoyed exploring the shadowy world of tintypes. These monochromatic photographs are recorded on metal plates, compositions – of portrait sitters, ostrich eggs, animal skulls, bottles, pots and feathers – that are all fixed in reverse: “I have to think with my left hand as it were,” he observes.

Hunter was born in Cochin in south India, where his father was a tea merchant, a period he knows only through the flickering images of his father’s reels of Super 8 cine film. When he was an infant, the family relocated to the Sussex countryside where Hunter spent his childhood during the 1960s before reading Botany at Oxford. It is, perhaps, not an obvious foundation for a career in photography, but Hunter’s interest in science and nature informs much of his work, both commercial and personal.

In the early 2010s, having used digital cameras on advertising shoots for many years, Hunter sought a return to analogue methods. Following a portraiture project in which he shot traders – butchers, bakers, brewers and cheesemakers – on Maltby Street in Bermondsey using defunct large-format Polaroid stock, he studied tintype photography in America. His guide to this esoteric world was Loni Sternback, who uses large format cameras and early photographic processes to capture the surfing communities of Malibu and Montauk.

The heyday of the tintype was short, a period bookended by the dominance of the daguerreotype and the albumen silver print. Yet, in the mid-19th century, they were revolutionary. These were Victorian Polaroids; relatively quick to take, develop and give to clients, they were popularised by travelling photobooths, especially during the American Civil War (today, Hunter tells me, reenactors have reinvigorated the medium in the US, getting their costumed alter egos immortalised in period-style portraits). A mashup of nostalgia, postmodernism and the rise of the Slow Movement – a cultural revolution that embraces contemplation in all areas of life – has now turned the tintype into “the steampunk of photography”.

By contemporary standards, the process is the antithesis of the ubiquitous and carefree digital sphere. It is both laborious and, in its own peculiar fashion, an exercise in whistle-stop precision. Each metal plate – iron is more often used than the titular tin – is coated in a liquid solution of collodion – a flammable syrup – which is then covered in silver nitrate. The dripping plate must then be exposed within three minutes. Hunter uses a bespoke bellows camera and vintage brass lenses in a realm far removed from the ‘decisive moment’ of Cartier Bresson or the repetitive methods of contemporary studio photographers with their titanic memory cards.

Vast amounts of light are required to capture a tintype subject. Hunter explains that his flash leaves his sitters dazzled. “I don’t inform my subjects until they’ve gasped after it’s happened,” he laughs. For his still lifes, however, he prefers natural light and protracted exposures, lasting up to 80 seconds. His compositions and shooting process are devised and arranged with precision.

But even then – and for Hunter this is part of the joy – there is the element of chance to the finished image. Hunter develops and fixes the plate immediately following the exposure (historically potassium cyanide was used as the fixer). “You cross over a threshold and stop being the control freak and love the serendipity of what happens,” Hunter notes. As the image develops, captivating details come to the surface “just like the paint drip that makes the imperfect painting perfect.” The allusion is telling; occasionally Hunter’s compositions echo the canvases of Giorgio Morandi and Paul Cézanne. And like a painter, he says, he remains “open to the accident”. He revels in the fact that he can’t retouch these works. The tintype remains something of a phantom form, with Hunter an optimistic medium in search of contact.

Such diligent prospecting is perhaps best observed in his portraiture. In the summer of 2019, Hunter took a series of tintype portraits at Messum’s galleries in Wiltshire. The results illustrate the technique’s spectral qualities. The extremely shallow depth of field demanded by the technology means that his faces – while pin-sharp at the subject’s eye – dissolve away with each millimetre.

For his Harrogate exhibition, Hunter has combined selections of his still life work from seemingly opposing parts of his photographic career: a group of monochrome tintypes – reproduced here in high-definition editions – and a collection of colour digital prints. Unifying the two series is an obsessive passion for detail and a consistent love of a striking, sometimes playful, juxtaposition of forms. However, each series possesses its own distinctive veneer. His handmade tintypes allow for a “beautiful patina of marks and smears due to the wet chemistry involved” and yet his subjects emerge with a smoothness of tone that, he notes, gets close to the “infinite resolution” of nature. His colour prints meanwhile deliver a sheen of near luminous tints: pops of colour on otherwise subtle colour schemes.

Many of the tintypes on view in Yorkshire are studies in texture: a monumental celeriac, knobbly and rough like a cheese-grater; an old book binding as frail as a centenarian’s skin; a smooth, solid pear that might almost be cast in bronze. There is a tangible physicality, a tactility, to these prints.

Hunter’s still lifes spin a new thread into a robust photographic tradition, one that ties together Edward Weston’s shape studies, of curvaceous shells and bulbous roots, from the pre-war years to Irving Penn’s later still lifes which elevated the ugly – cigarette butts, dirty crockery, rotting apples – into the intriguing. Just as Penn’s compositions made litter lovely and decay exquisite, Hunter’s configurations juggle a curious array of unprepossessing objects – from bent spoons and dead mackerel to bee smokers and the detritus of the farmyard – in new, often mysterious lights. And throughout his work there is an understanding of – and delight in – the curious, beautiful, sometimes comical, geometry found in the natural world.

He has a particular fondness for flora – from voluptuous fruits and characterful vegetables to translucent leaves and brittle seed pods – which, similarly, was a muse to amateur Victorian and Edwardian photographers. One of those obscure figures was Charles Jones, a gardener-photographer whose gold-toned fin-de-siecleprints were rediscovered in 1981 hidden in a trunk in Bermondsey antiques market, just a short walk from Hunter’s studio. A century on Hunter ploughs a similar field.

The intersection between man and nature is also prominent in his colour work. In a sequence of five photographs titled Hedgerow and Barn, Hunter presents clusters of rural objects in hushed miniature stage-sets: a few grasses enliven a table top of muddy farmyard flotsam and jetsam; a piece of grey machinery supports an amber hunk of honey; green acorns and red berries pepper charcoal backdrops.

Hunter uses colour with restraint, a sparing approach which allows the viewer to digest tonal variations in a single hue, much like the eye enjoys the grades of grey in his monochrome work. In Romanesco, the chartreuse coral-like heart of the broccoli is robed in its khaki leaves, delivering an otherworldly landscape of ridged and bobbled greens. Sometimes, however, he lets the colour shout, as with Rose Hip – a shocking pop of red fringed by a spray of leaves – and his strident Lemon.

But, Hunter maintains, his work is all of a piece. His colour photographs are “modern images with a relatively spare colour palette in terms of background, which is equivalent to the way I’ve approached the tintypes.” What binds them, he insists, is his eye as the image maker, rather than the equipment he utilises.

Of course, all that archaic apparatus brings its own idiosyncratic challenges. “It’s difficult to source materials, it’s difficult to do, everything about it is difficult. And dangerous: the chemicals are either very toxic or potentially explosive,” acknowledges Hunter. But, he adds, “within all of that there is such magic”. One imagines that as he leaves London for the Black Hills of Herefordshire, this chemist-naturalist-artist will continue to conjure up his beguiling photographic spells.

Christian House is a writer and art critic. He is a contributor to FT and The Telegraph and has written for The Guardian, The Independent, Apollo Magazine, and The Arts Newspaper.