What do you know about tintypes? Chances are, probably not much. After all, it’s a photography technique that was popular during the Civil War, involving reactive chemicals, metal plates, and a large-format camera.
Photographer and former gunner on combat search-and-rescue helicopters Ed Drew took artistic inspiration from this old format, setting up photo sessions with his fellow soldiers, which he’d have to abandon whenever he was called out on a mission. Still, he had time to capture plenty of striking and evocative portraits.
“I like tintypes because it’s not just something simple…you have to set it up and you have to be really physical with it, you can’t just click,” he told Scott Shafer of the PBS NewsHour. “You’re basically making a photo on a piece of metal. You’re exposing it, developing it and fixing it all right then and there.”
When Drew learned that he would be deployed to Afghanistan last year, he packed his camera. According to Shafer, Drew’s tintypes were the first to be created in a combat zone since the Civil War, when families typically would use them to capture a final memory of a loved one before he went off to war.
Once Drew left the military, he struggled to find his purpose, eventually deciding to use his photography to show the beauty of people. Now he attends the San Francisco Art Institute and works with The Garden Project in San Bruno, California, with a program for at-risk youth. The Air Force veteran now makes tintypes of young people learning job skills through organic farming.
“I think the imperfections of tintypes is what I really enjoy,” Drew told Shafer, “and I think it’s a great analogy for life, life is not perfect whether they have a little speck on them or a little streak of silver that just kind of went awry, you accept the image just like you accept the person.”