Tintype siren song

February 28, 2017

By Sheila Julson

Margaret Muza found her path with century-old photo technology

“Tariq” 2016 Margaret Muza

Haunting images in mottled brown and cream tones line the walls of artist Margaret Muza’s Bay View photography studio. The photos look as if they were found in antique stores or a history museum. Printed on aluminum plates, the images capture contemporary subjects but they resemble the photographs of the soldiers and landscapes of the Civil War that were made 150 years ago.

“My hope is to confuse people and make them wonder, ‘When was this really taken?’” Muza laughed.

Muza, who loves history, said that she’d seen tintypes of Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and other people who were photographed during the Civil War. She found the photos moving — haunting and ghostlike, a world apart from more recent photographs captured with film or digital technology.

Her friend Eileen Blom was similarly drawn to the enigmatic beauty of tintypes. The women met when they both worked at the former Sweet Water  Organics aquaponics facility in Bay View.

“I didn’t know why old photographs look so different or what made them stand out,” Muza said, so she and Blom set out to discover the secrets. They found a 1975 article published by Mother Earth News that discussed a resurgence of interest in and making of tintype photographs.

“I read the article and felt a strong urge to do it. I eventually found an email for the author and told him that I just read his article online, and I saw that he teaches tintypes and I’d love to learn,” Muza said. He replied but said he was no longer teaching.

Undeterred, Muza and Blom kept digging. Their research led them to Rowan Rene, who conducts tintype workshops in Brooklyn, N.Y. The women signed on. After picking up the basics, they returned to Milwaukee, ordered supplies, and began practicing in Muza’s basement.

The process is complex and involves numerous steps and toxic chemicals that can accidentally produce poisonous cyanide gas or explosions if mistakes are made. They survived their early experiments.

To earn money to acquire equipment, they offered to make affordable tintypes for their friends, which led to others who also commissioned them.

Learning to make tintypes involved some bumps for Margaret Muza, such as learning how weather conditions like heat affect the chemical reactions. PHOTO Jamie Bloomquist

Hands-On Process

Tintype photography was the original instant photography, prefiguring Polaroid technology. It is a fast process, about 20 minutes from the click of the shutter to a finished photograph. It was used predominantly in the 1860s and 1870s.

The tintype method Muza uses is produced through a wet plate process — the photo must be taken and the plate dipped in developing solution while the photographic emulsion is still wet.

The process involves no negatives; the image is known as a “direct positive” in photography parlance. The photographer starts with a liquid emulsion called collodion, also known as gun cotton, that is spread on a metal plate. As soon as it starts to dry, the plate is immersed in a bath of silver nitrate, which makes it light sensitive. At this stage, the plate is inserted in the camera. When the photograph is taken, Muza removes the plate and immerses it in a developer solution.

After the photograph is developed, she finishes it by applying a homemade varnish made of tree sap, lavender oil, and alcohol. The final result is an heirloom 8- by10-inch photograph that costs $125. Muza also has a smaller camera that she uses to produce four- by five-inch tintypes that she sells for $75. She makes locket-sized tintypes that she sells for $20.

Muza’s large format view camera is an antique, an Eastman Kodak from the early 20th century. PHOTO Margaret Muza

Muza’s camera is an antique Eastman Kodak 8- by 10-inch large format view camera she found at an antique store. She thinks it was made in the early 1900s.

Tintype photography requires long exposures so the subject must remain motionless for several for a brief time to avoid blurred or multiple exposures in the final photo. After the shutter snaps, Muza removes the plate and places it in a dark box, a tabletop mini darkroom about the size of an end table.

Most of her subjects don’t don vintage garments for their tintype shoot, but Muza has a collection of antique hats, furs, and jewelry on hand for those who want to play dress-up for their photos.

Last year Muza and Blom found a studio in a warehouse tucked away on Allis Street, just off of Hilbert Street. When Blom, her husband Jesse, and their children moved to Baltimore last summer, Muza became sole owner of Guncotton Tintype. Blom has also continued to pursue her tintype art.

“Tintype photography really merged all my interests together — an interest in old things, in costumes, and I get to meet people and make portraits that last 150 years and stand the test of time,” Muza said.

Most of Muza’s photos are portraits. There are some nature photographs, including images taken at the Seminary Woods. Details in tintypes are prominent, such as tree reflections in water or deep emotions expressed through the subjects’ eyes.

Learning to make tintypes involved some bumps for Muza, such as learning how weather conditions like heat affect the chemical reactions.

Until she developed an interest in tintype, Muza said she just took photos on her phone like everybody else. She always had an artistic flair and made jewelry, sewed, and dabbled in other forms of art.

I feel like it’s important to make a photograph really special again. It’s not like taking a million images on a digital camera and throwing away all except the best ones,” she said. “On a digital camera, the images are on your camera, but you really don’t own them.”

Muza’s Jones Island Fishing Village Heritage

Margaret Muza is a direct descendant of one of the original Kaszube families who lived in the fishing village on Jones Island. The village was settled by squatters, who emigrated from the Baltic Coast of Poland, people of Polish and German descent.

Margaret is the great-granddaughter of Michael Muza, who was born on Jones Island in 1902, according to Richard Muza, Margaret’s father. Michael was the son of Aleksander Muza.

Margaret said that according to family lore, Aleksander emigrated from the Baltic to Wisconsin, settling on Jones Island at the behest of Jacob Muza, one of the first settlers on the peninsula just north of Bay View.

Richard Muza said that he believes that Jacob and Aleksander Muza were related but hasn’t been able to establish the relationship.

When Margaret Muza worked at Sweet Water Organics, she helped fillet fish. She said realized one day that she was carrying on the tradition of her fisherfolk forebears.

The Kaszubes lived on Jones Island from 1870 to 1943. They were forced out by the city of Milwaukee so it could establish a sewage treatment plant on that land. 

Jones Island is now mostly concrete-covered. It is the barren land that lies beneath the Hoan Bridge.

The diminutive Kaszube’s Park is a pocket of green on the north end of Jones Island that memorializes the fishing village and its people. The park, located at 1101 Car Ferry Drive, is owned by the city of Milwaukee.

— Katherine Keller

Guncotton Tintype
1911 S. Allis St.

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