19th-Century Photo Technique Comes into Focus at Comer Lecture
In the digital era, imagery is immediate.
An amateur photographer can point, shoot, edit and share an image in a matter of minutes. But Houston-based photographer Keliy Anderson-Staley explores a different kind of immediacy in her work.
She specializes in a 19th-century technique called tintype photography, which results in stark, black-and-white or sepia-toned images, and is best known as the technique used to capture images of Abraham Lincoln and prominent Civil War figures.
“I immediately fell in love with this process when I saw the potential in it,” Anderson-Staley said. “It’s hard to say why exactly, except that I liked the connection to history, the materiality of the end product and the physical engagement with the materials.”
Anderson-Staley, who has been creating tintype portraits since 2004, will be sharing insights into her creative process as part of the annual Comer Collection exhibition and lecture series on Tuesday, Feb. 28. The free lecture, which is open to the public, will be at 7 p.m. in the Davidson Auditorium. A reception at 6 p.m. will precede the talk.
Open through March 10 in University Theatre, the exhibition, Binary Consciousness, will feature three of Anderson-Staley’s tintypes, as well as other works from the Comer Collection.
She uses a method, also known as wet-plate collodion process, that requires images be made entirely while the metal plate still has a layer of wet collodion — a viscous liquid made by dissolving guncotton in nitric acid.
The plate is then sensitized in a bath of silver nitrate that will form the image. Although the process is more labor intensive than modern photography, the results are instantaneous.
The photos featured in the exhibition are from Anderson-Staley’s “[Hyphen]-Americans” series, which explores the diversity of American faces that she has captured over the last 10 years.
“In presenting all these modern subjects in this mode, I am very interested in how that history collapses, and in how we start to realize that what we think of as a defining feature of someone’s expression is often the result of process, of photographic technology and the conventions of the form,” she said.
Anderson-Staley said that photography has not always played an innocent role in documenting visual history — especially early processes that were often used to create racist catalogues of human “types.” But this project highlights the individuals, she said.
“Each individual in this series defiantly asserts their selfhood, resisting any imposed or external categorizing system we might bring to these images,” she said. “Echoes and patterns of similarity and difference can be found across my installations, but each portrait reminds us of the persistent uniqueness of faces and our common human identity.”
About the Comer Collection
The Anderson-Staley tintypes are only the latest addition to an impressive collection of photography and texts more than 10 years in the making.
“I had accumulated some pretty significant pictures, and they were just in boxes under the bed,” Comer said. “As I got more and more pictures, I became concerned that they could be damaged beyond repair. So, I decided to gift them to the school.”
Comer, an avid amateur photographer who has won a number of local competitions including the Best of Show honor at the State Fair of Texas, said he has been collecting photographs since the late 1950s.
“I’ve been a photographer for as long as I can remember,” Comer said. “I developed my first roll of film in summer camp when I was 11 years old. Taking pictures led to an interest in collecting them as well.”
Over time, he amassed a personal collection of images that depict important mid- to late 20th-century American life, including several that record the civil rights movement. Two photos in the collection — “American Gothic” by Gordon Parks and “Birmingham 1963” by Charles Moore — are featured in the LIFE book “100 Photographs That Changed the World.” Since 2004, the collection has expanded several times, and now contains close to 1,000 photographs and books.