Leonard Higdon & Mary Ann McClure, high resolution scan with oval analysis


When I first saw this image of Leonard Higdon & Mary Ann McClure, I was amazed by how much more clear the two faces were amidst the damage and I was amazed at how much damage there was. The right side of Leonard's image was a hodgepodge. I couldn’t see where Leonard’s right arm ended. The feet of both Leonard & Mary Ann were not captured in the image. There were throughout the image a lot of noticeable white dots, black dots, scratches, dings, surface cracks, and discoloration. It is obvious that the edges had gone through very rough handling. There was also a large amount of fading which I finally recognized as an oval in the center, more or less, of the photo image. Because the oval fading is about two-thirds of the photo image, and because the fading is very light, I simply did not see it on my earliest examinations of the image. Check the images above and you will see that the edges of the oval are present around almost half the right side of the oval and near Leonard’s shoulder up to near the top of the left side of the oval.  

Several other conditions also caught my attention: 1) The tintype was probably captured in a temporary, portable studio set up at a county fair or church social. Notice the dark corner of a rectangular box the Mary Ann is sitting on. It looks like a storage crate for supplies for the temporary outdoor studio. Notice the dark pattern next to Leonard’s leg. He too seems to be sitting on a rectangular box. It also looks like a storage crate for supplies for the temporary outdoor studio, just with a slightly fancier front overlay made from half-round wooden trim pieces. 2) The canvas drop cloth was hung up quickly on a portable frame. There was no way to do a good job of stretching the canvas flat. Notice the wrinkles in the canvas right next to both faces. In an indoor photo studio there would have been several easy ways to stretch the canvas flat, and indoor studios always had, and still have, many pieces of furniture such as chairs and sofas to pose photo subjects on; they would typically not have used shipping crates. 3) The very dark large splotches between the faces and the top edge of the photograph are not shadows. They are due to instability in the tintype development chemicals and the effects of semi-sealed layers of framing materials trapping gasses inside storage cases. Finally, 4) For most of the time period when tintypes were popular, 1860 - 1900, there was no electricity available for either indoor or outdoor photo studio lights. Outdoors, what photographers did was move their photo subjects (or set up their portable studios) to use the sun to light their tintypes. They typically avoided capturing photo images on cloudy, sunless days. Check carefully above and you will see that both Leonard and Mary Ann are squinting. As they are sitting, they are definitely facing the sun. As you look at the canvas behind them, you will see that the wrinkles are casting shadows, almost straight down. As they originally sat in this image, both Leonard & Mary Ann were brightly lit by a centered, almost vertical sun overhead. All of these conditions came into play as decisions were made during this repair & restoration effort.

At first because of the extensive damage, I simply decided to ignore the background and photographically covered over the background with an even, gray pattern of ‘noise.’ Sending an email copy of this image with that approach to Carolyn & Randy Cole led to their mention by email that the original image was a tintype. While not containing any tin (earlier forms of the name include ferrotype and tint type), tintypes were actually very thin layers of iron sheeting that were coated with a dark lacquer or enamel which provided the support needed for the photosensitive emulsion. 

Check around the edges of the image and you will see a lighter gray, speckled surface. This lighter gray, speckled surface is most noticeable in the upper left corner. The speckled pattern is due to the crystalline structure of the cast iron metal used. So the edges of this image show a metal-based photograph that has been very roughly handled with nicks, dents, and clipped corners. There is also a large amount of black and very dark gray areas around the edges of the photograph, along with black, flattened, enameled flakes and curls. Particularly in the background canvas portion of the image there is a lot of discoloration with black, dark gray, and light gray streaks, blotches, and spots. 

Today in the existing tintypes that remain, discoloration is the most widespread damage issue. This is puzzling when you realize that many, if not most, tintypes were sold with a thick protective cover, a wooden case with soft cloth linings, to protect the image from the easiest to cause damage, scratches. The photosensitive emulsion was soft, so soft than any object, even a fingernail, could cause a scratch. While there are many ways that the handling of the finished image could cause scratch and other physical damage, discoloration is different. 

Discoloration comes from chemical changes in the development and fixing of stages of image production. Photographers want the yellowish white emulsion to stay where they expect white in the image, and they want the emulsion to be chemically removed to create grays, and if completely removed, to create black. However, the chemicals used in the late 1800s were unstable. That’s why a quick internet review of existing tintypes show so many with overcasts and/or shades of blue, green, pink, and so on, as well as black colors where you expect lighter colors and lighter colors where you expect grays and blacks. 

Further, a fixer chemical is used to stop the developer chemical action, and in essence to freeze, or fix, the image from any further change. The tintype chemicals used were all water-based and the image, once out of the last of the chemical baths, would drain and dry in a short time. Unfortunately, the metal backing of the tintype did not allow that underside of the tintype’s emulsion layer to thoroughly dry. That’s one way to get a discoloration: as gasses, the developer chemicals continued to develop, albeit very slowly, and whites become blacker. Photographers, to help sales, also used a fancy frame, such as an oval-in-rectangle over the tintype image, and that fancy frame was metal or heavy card stock, either of those materials could, and many times did, chemically react with the not-quite-dry emulsion. Once again, look at the image above. The heaviest blacks are on the outer edges under a now long lost oval-in-rectangle frame.

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