ArtBeat: Looking back at the present

For The Recorder
Last modified: Thursday, February 25, 2016
*Archive Article*
A crow perches atop a road sign. A figure passes through a doorway into an opening of light. An acrobat in a diamond-patterned costume hangs upside down by ropes tied to his feet while people walk by on the street as if nothing unusual is happening. Printed on metal, the seventeen 6x6-inch images convey the mood and aesthetic of the tintype, an early photographic process developed in the mid-1800s.

Leverett artist Ruth West’s new exhibit, “17 Mysteries and Signs: Tintypes in the Digital Age,” opens today and runs through March 12 at Nina’s Nook, 125 Avenue A in Turners Falls.

Hung in a grid of 16, with the 17th image trailing off bottom right as if pointing toward more images yet to come, the effect of the show is oddly haunting. Each image is a glimpse into a story only partially understood.

“Why are these people going off into the light? Why is this hand coming up out of nothing?” West asks, gesturing toward the photographs.

The first photo she mentioned shows a line of figures, some haloed, some almost swallowed by light, walking through a rural landscape, their backs to the viewer. The combination of the photo’s content and the appearance of the older processing technique gives the image a timeless and enigmatic feel. The figures might be walking off into Paradise.

In fact, West shot the image with her iPhone while on a walk to protest the Tennessee Gas Pipeline Company’s proposed pipeline that would run through Franklin County. She took all 17 images in the exhibit with her iPhone, West says, then manipulated them in computer software to mimic the rolled edges, pockmarks and other imperfections that would have scarred the emulsions of tintypes.

There’s an otherworldly feel to many of the images. People are turned away from us, their faces hidden, or in one instance, being obliterated by a flash of light. A castle in Ireland broods over the landscape like something out of a Lord Byron poem. The hint of impending storm rolls through almost every image, though several provide a pop of humor: in a musical instrument shop window, amid serious-seeming violins, a ukulele painted with a Smiley face grins unabashedly. These captured moments hint at the “mysteries” in the show’s title.

Some of the “signs” are straightforward, like a few taken at the Franklin County Fair: “Good for one goldfish,” “Prize every time,” or, painted on the back of a moving truck, “Watch your step.” The sign, “Poison Garden,” taken in Montréal, has a more sinister feel.

There’s a certain symmetry to using the iPhone for these images, West explains. In the same way that the iPhone and other phone cameras have brought photography to more people, in the mid-1800s, tintypes brought photography out of the formal portrait studio and into the streets.

Tintypes were less expensive to produce than the earlier daguerreotypes and the emulsions dried faster, West explains. Itinerant photographers could set up outdoor booths, take portraits at carnivals and turn them into brooches. West has been collecting these vintage pins as well as other tintypes for years. The relative ease and lower cost of the tintype process also heralded the beginning of photojournalism: most of the images we’ve seen of the Civil War are tintypes.

“Tintypes were the poor man’s version of the daguerreotype,” West says.

“And then this, taking the most current thing that everybody can do,” she adds, gesturing to her photos. “Anybody can work with an iPhone. And it becomes, ultimately, the eye.”

West was one of the first two graduates of the University of Massachusetts Amherst with a master of fine arts degree in computer graphics. She’s now director of computer graphics and digital arts at Springfield College.

She sees working with the tintype aesthetic while using modern technology as a way of, “Pulling back the beginning of photography. It’s stitching time,” she says.

West first began making art with computers in 1982, and has been experimenting with it for over thirty years now: “Since God was a girl and dirt was new,” she says.

Her knowledge and experience have enabled her to loosen up.

“It’s kind of like when you’re a painter and, after a while, you don’t really need to think about how you’re putting the paint down because you understand it. It’s the same thing that’s happening with me. I understand it, so I can get simpler.”

Where to see it

“17 Mysteries and Signs: Tintypes in the Digital Age” is on display at Nina’s Nook, 125 Avenue A, Turners Falls through March 12. Hours: Thursday through Saturday 12 to 5 p.m. and by appointment. Contact: 413-834-8800 or 

Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She can be reached at tcrapo@me.com