Photographer using archaic art form documents Lackawanna County residents

Aug. 1—A portrait of Sue Jenkins soaking in fixer quickly began to develop on a coated slide of an aluminum trophy plate.

The photographer, Rebecca Daniels, leaned in to inspect her work in the backyard of Jenkins’ Dunmore home. Brown streaks coat Daniels’ hands from the silver nitrate used in the developing process. She was pleasantly surprised at how well the first black and white take of the Marywood University associate professor of art came out from her tintype camera.

Using the old-fashioned form of photography — first patented in the United States in 1856 — Daniels, a Hawley native, is documenting Lackawanna County residents through the Lackawanna Tintype Project. She received a Creative Community Grant from the Lackawanna County Arts & Culture Department for the project.

Part artistic endeavor, part anthropology project, Daniels, the project manager, and her friend and colleague, Rosie Jacobson, consulting ethnographer, are combining visual history with oral history to document the post-pandemic era.

“We just wanted to make sure these stories are being recorded because this is a historic time,” said Jacobson. “This is affecting every single person in the world and we can do our part to preserve some memories and some knowledge.”

Daniels, based in Philadelphia for 13 years, returned to the area in early 2020, to visit her partner, Elijah Birtel, co-owner of Electric City Tattoo & Piercing. Pandemic shutdowns began and her time in Scranton turned from a week into a month, then a year.

Now, a permanent resident of the city, she began the project from her passion for the archaic art and a desire to take compelling tintypes of people in the region.

Daniels, who has a bachelor’s degree in fine art with a concentration in painting and photography, works full time in fundraising for nonprofits and also does grant writing, which lead her to the Lackawanna County grant.

While studying at Arcadia University in Glenside, Daniels became interested in using large format cameras and more intricate processes to produce pictures than digital photography. She describes herself as drawn to doing difficult things, including running marathons.

“Every time I was making art, I was always more interested in the process than I was the final product and I think that tintypes are a great example of that,” she said.

After college, Daniels took a weekend-long tintype class, thinking she could learn the process quickly.

“I was wrong,” she said.

Daniels persisted despite being “really bad” at the art form for a long time. Realizing she needed a mentor, she found John A. Coffer, a traveling wetplate artist based in the Finger Lakes.

“He does everything the traditional way,” she said. “I started to learn from him and progressively getting better and better. .. And it is again, a really, really complex process. A lot of this project is also sharing with people the history and background and complexities of it.”

She does that partly by walking her subjects through the around 30-minute process to set up her mobile darkroom.

In Jenkins’ backyard, Daniels set up two plastic tables, one with a sink traditionally used to gut fish that now is used to wash off the prints. An H2O-dependent process, she brought in buckets and bottles of water, chemicals in elixir bottles and the camera —a brown wooden rectangle with a red cap covering the lens fitted on a modern silver tripod.

She coated the aluminum plate with a homemade mixture of collodion, ether, alcohol, iodine and bromine, before sliding it into the camera. Wearing a headlamp with the light set to red, Daniels ducked under a blue towel to focus the camera. She pulled off the cap, counted “one Mississippi” and slid it back on before taking the plate out of the camera. Placing it in the fixer, the photograph of Jenkins, posed in front of her garage wearing a shirt with a sequin cat, developed within a minute. Lastly, Daniels preserved the photograph in water.

It’s extremely difficult to take two exact tintypes. Shifting clouds can change the photo’s outcome.

“I love that because these end up becoming snippets of time,” she said.

Afterward, Jacobson, of Philadelphia, who has a background in anthropology, interviews the photo’s subject.

“I’m learning so much,” Jacobson said. “It’s amazing. There’s so much happening in Lackawanna County. We’re talking to all these different people who are doing all these different projects in these very beautiful and organic ways.”

Before this project, Jacobson had no connections to the area, and as an outsider looking in, is finding interesting threads of shared experiences and phrases among the subjects.

There are always stories to be told, Jacobson said, with Daniels adding they hope to partner with other organizations to continue the project beyond Lackawanna County.

“If we just let the history exist as it does and just fade, we’re losing so much important knowledge and so many things we might not know again,” Jacobson said. “And so I think that this project is really powerful for that.”

Daniels is documenting the project on her Instagram — @lackawannatintype — where more details can be found. They are looking for residents interested in participating. To be part of the project, contact [email protected]

Contact the writer: [email protected]; 570-348-9100 x5114; @kbolusTT on Twitter.

Robert G. Mull

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