The tin type 

Authentic photographs capture look of a bygone era

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Ever since buying his first metal-plate picture at a flea market while in college, Robb Kendrick has been fascinated with tintype photography. But it wasn't until many years and some 5,000 collected works later that the photographer decided to learn the laborious process.

Kendrick's transition to tintype began, essentially, with his midlife crisis, later involved a rare Amish mentor who drove a wagon of oxen from New York to Oregon to study from a museum journal, and has continued through Kendrick's award-winning documenting of the working, Texas-cowboy lifestyle.

Kendrick uses an original 19th-century camera lens and wet-plate technology that involves two potentially lethal chemicals silver nitrate and potassium cyanide to create mirror-image tin photographs. The technique disappeared after the advent of dry-plate photography, which allowed photographers to shoot for lengthy amounts of time without stopping to develop. Wet-plate work demands immediate processing in the field.

Kendrick, who makes his home in Blanco, Texas, pulls a 7-by-12-foot ventilated darkroom trailer behind his truck to produce photos wherever he is not quite the convenience of a Polaroid camera.

In Kendrick's estimation, many people today misunderstand their ancestors because of photos that demanded their strict concentration.

"People always say that those people [1850s- to 1880s-era tintype portrait subjects] look unhappy or mean ... that they must've had a hard life," says Kendrick. "But the photography process itself dictated that look. An exposure could be between three and 17 seconds, and they were told to sit still and not even blink. If they moved a quarter of an inch, the photo would turn out blurry."

Looking at Kendrick's cowboy tintypes and observing similar vacant gazes, his argument comes into focus. The work exudes a certain timeless quality.

Kendrick spends up to an hour capturing each person.

"Tintype creates a very close photographer-subject relationship," he explains. "We're more of partners in the process."

Matthew Schniper


Revealing Character and Other Cowboy Tintypes, portraits by Robb Kendrick

Smokebrush Gallery, 218 W. Colorado Ave.

Opening reception Friday, June 30, 2-7 p.m.; show runs through July 29.

Call 444-1012 or visit

smokebrush.org for more.

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