The Tin Gypsy Story:
It all began as an idea... a rather ambitious and wild idea... to transform an old beaten up trailer into a fabulous traveling tintype darkroom, following in the footsteps of the early pioneers of photography.
The Tin Gypsy began her life as a tiny (only 6 feet long!) vintage travel trailer born in 1961. When Meghann Mary Gilligan, a photographer with a growing interest in handmade historical photographic processes, found the trailer she had been long abandoned, with weeds growing up around her as she languished in a backyard. With the help of friends, family and Tin Gypsy supporters from around the world, Meghann designed and implemented the old girl's rehabilitation and transformation into a traveling tintype darkroom.
After her liberation from the overgrown backyard, the Gypsy was stripped and gutted and then lovingly rebuilt and retrofitted for her new life as a fabulous Traveling Photographic Studio and Darkroom. The Tin Gypsy was specially designed to facilitate the practice of antique photographic processes dating back to the 1850s, specifically the wet-plate collodion tintype process. The tintype process is a complex and challenging one, requiring all of the elements involved in making a photograph-- the emulsion, silver sensitizer, developer and fixer-- to be mixed from scratch using the same recipes and techniques that were discovered more than 150 years ago.
This project takes its inspiration from the earliest practitioners of photography, who were as much scientists and inventors as they were artists. These early photographers used a mix of creativity and lots of trial and error to devise ingenious techniques for making photographs. In our age of instant gratification, what is most compelling about this antiquarian photographic technique is the tintype process itself. It's a slower, more intimate and handmade experience than most modern photographic practices. There is a feeling of mystery and magic and a little bit of danger... mixing the chemicals (ether! grain alcohol!), coating the metal plates, watching the images slowly reveal themselves on the plates as the developer works- it's all truly amazing to experience.
The Wet Plate Collodion Process, invented in 1854, must be completed within just a few minutes, before the light-sensitive collodion solution dries on the metal plate and renders the image impossible to develop. In order to successfully execute this process, the photographer must have his or her darkroom nearby. So, in order to make tintypes on the road, a photographer has to bring her darkroom out on the road too.
In the mid-19th Century, photographers decided to attempt to take the wet plate process outside of the studio and into the field. Horse-drawn carts and buggies were retrofitted as mobile darkrooms. Traveling portrait photographers were then able to wander the country with their mobile darkrooms, making tintypes of the people and places they found in the small towns and cities they traveled through. Often, these photographers made their living by producing small tintype portraits, known as 'cartes de visite' and cabinet cards, that were very affordable and wildly popular for a time. Traveling darkrooms were also used by early documentary photographers, such as Matthew Brady, who wanted to be able to photograph the prominent figures of the day as well as travel onto the battlefields to document the soldiers and scenes of the Civil War.
The Tin Gypsy Project Today:
It's been nearly three years since my idea for the Tin Gypsy Project began the journey to becoming a reality. I continue to travel with the Gypsy throughout the Pacific Northwest, making tintypes of the unique people and places and things that I find along the way. It's been a wonderful experience for me as an artist to connect with the historical origins of photography through the study and practice of antiquarian photographic techniques, as well as to bring my own aesthetic vision and modern sensibilities to the process. I love the distinctive visual style of the tintypes I create and enjoy the unique and challenging hands-on process of creating each one. Each time I set out to make a new tintype plate, I know that the resulting image will be absolutely one-of-a-kind and handmade.